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BWW Reviews: LAMENTO D'ARIANNA Revisits The Remaining Fragment Of Monteverdi's Lost Opera


Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Tuesday 25th November 2014

Lamento d'Arianna, or Ariadne's Lament, is the only surviving section of Claudio Monteverdi's second opera, L'Arianna. The full eight scene libretto written by Ottavio Rinuccini remains, but all of the other music has been lost. It was based largely on Ovid's Heroides and concerns Theseus abandoning Ariadne on the island of Naxos, until Bacchus arrives to save her and make her his wife.

Monteverdi [15 May 1567 (baptized) - 29 November 1643] is, of course, a very significant composer, bridging the Renaissance and Baroque eras of music, and being a most important composer in the creation of the opera. His L'Orfeo, is the earliest surviving opera, not only being one of the first Baroque operas but, of course, one of the first in the entire history of the genre. He was also important for developing the new Baroque style of basso continuo, and he is well-known for his vast output of madrigals.

This event, though, was more than a concert, as it also formed part of a research project being conducted by mezzo-soprano and music lecturer, Dr. Daniela Kaleva. The full house, of a hundred eager patrons, were asked to say which of two performance versions they preferred, and why. A simple "yes/no" questionnaire was completed immediately after the performances were ended, over a drink and light snacks which provided a chance for people to mingle and discuss what they had just seen and heard. A longer questionnaire is available on line, to be completed voluntarily in the attendees' own time.

To give the event its full title, it is, L'Arianna abbandonata e gloriosa: Presenting Historically Informed Italian Baroque Performance in a Contemplation on Grief and its Transformational Properties. It is explained in the notes as follows. "The performance is part of research project titled A Comparative Audience Reception Study of Historically Re-created Opera with Reference to Monteverdi's Lamento d'Arianna, by AI Dr Daniela Kaleva (University of South Australia) and is produced by Dr Daniela Kaleva under the auspices of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions Europe (1110-1800), Hawke Research Institute, and the University of South Australia, and in partnership with the State Library of South Australia." The performance was held in the Mortlock Chamber of the State Library, the oldest part of the building, and a beautiful setting for this work.

Harpsichordist, Donald Nicholson, began the performance with a superbly played selection of Italian keyboard pieces, including improvisations, drawing on musicological research to ensure as authentic a performance as possible. This set the scene, accustoming the audience to the sounds of the era.

The first performance, featuring Dr. Kaleva singing the role of Arianna/Ariadne, and accompanied by Nicholson, is a concert version, as sung and recorded by many of the great names over the years. This solo chamber work is familiar to concertgoers, the emotional power of the lament ensuring that it continues to appear on concert programmes.

Between this and the second version, Prof. Han Baltussen (The University of Adelaide) treated us to a short discussion titled, Grief in Greek Myth: Revisiting the Ariadne Story, which put the story of Arianna into a historical context. A most engaging talk, it took me back decades to my days studying music at the Elder Conservatorium at the University of Adelaide, where the written scores and performances were augmented by lectures that, like this, elaborated on all of the other facets of the music, providing insights that then informed performance.

For the second version, Dr. Kaleva and Nicholson were joined, in the later section, by Corinna Di Niro, who is about to complete her studies to be awarded the world's first Doctorate in Commedia Del'Arte, one of the genres that formed a part of the full opera. She appears as Arianna's lady-in-waiting, Dorilla, with spoken text, in contrast to Dr. Kaleva's singing as Arianna. This is a remarkable trio of experts in their field and, consequently, the performance was exceptional. All three wore costumes appropriate to the era, with Dr. Kaleva and Di Niro also dressed suitably for their characters. Such a pity that the rest of the music is lost, as one could imagine what this one short excerpt alone would be like in a full production.

The performance went far beyond these visual changes, though, with sound effects, and recorded voices adding spoken elements from the opera, most notably the chorus of fishermen adding their comments between sections of the lament and, at the conclusion of the piece, the voice of Bacchus. The sound design was by Philip Rene van Hout.

Rhetorical gesture, spoken of as 'the fifth division of the art of rhetoric' uses physical gestures to amplify what is being said by an actor, singer, or orator, and Dr. Kaleva employs this in her performance to great effect. Fortunately, there is a very important primary source on this subject, written by John Bulwer (1606-1656), published in 1644.

Chironomia, the use of formalised hand gestures, goes back to the Romans and Greeks, and the gestures were recognised by audiences, their meaning known even without spoken text. It was as familiar to them as it is when somebody waves to us. We know that this means "hello" and we wave back. Chirologia, the natural hand gestures that are used when talking, also formed a part of of expanding and clarifying meaning, and these are the gestures that we use today, although more so in some cultures than others. Some of the rhetorical gestures were still being commonly used in silent films in the early 20th Century, to add emotional content to the written slides.

Despite the fact that the evening was a wonderful concert of Baroque music, by highly knowledgable and very talented people, there was another reason for this event, as previously mentioned. It is part of a multidisciplinary research programme and Dr. Kaleva is looking at the statistics that show that audiences for all forms of fine music are declining. The audience is asked to evaluate the two versions of the lament and answer a series of questions that seek to establish which is the most favoured, from which further work can be carried out to inform performance practice, in the hope of reversing this trend.

Such was the enjoyment of the evening, though, that a number of people commented that it was such a shame that there was only the one chance to attend and, having completely sold out very quickly, it would be a very worthwhile endeavour to repeat it or, perhaps, to expand it into a larger concert of Baroque treasures, using this as the core. I can only wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment. It would be even better if it could be toured to other Australian cities as this is certainly a rare opportunty to discover more about early Baroque music performance that music lovers would relish.

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