Wait, is it the Monteverdi year? Help. I can’t get on social media without seeing Instagram theorbos, videos of madrigals by fellow early music noobs, or another of review of “Orfeo” pretending it’s a new work. In particular, Sir John Eliot Gardiner (known by some as Jiggy) has made a splash this year by taking a six month tour performing Monteverdi’s complete operas. Well, almost complete: while “Orfeo,” “Ulisse,” and “L’Incorazione di Poppea” exist in their complete forms, all that remains of “Arianna” (1608) is the libretto and a single detached 15-minute fragment, the famous “Lamento.” This year, conductor and scholar Andrew Lawrence King undertook the project to stage a complete performance of “Arianna,” despite the obvious obstacle that it doesn’t actually exist.
In September of this year, members of the International Baroque Opera Studio (Opera Omnia) were hosted by the Theatre Natalya Sats in Moscow to perform an original work called “ARIANNA: a la recherche,” a version inspired by the musical and rhetorical principles employed by Monteverdi in and around the year 1608. I asked King why he chose to take on a project as large and delicate as an “Arianna” reconstruction. He replied, “Because it’s not there!”
King wasn’t the first person to attempt the “Arianna.” In 1995, composer Alexander Goehr took on the task of setting Ottavio Rinuccini’s complete libretto, including a reharmonization of the extant “Lamento.” King mentioned the work in passing, noting “my own setting aims to be as much as possible ‘in Monteverdi’s voice,’ and—as a research project—to put into practice Monteverdian principles and practices of text-setting.” (“Mr. Goehr retained the lament and built his own structure around it. [Monteverdian style] is woven through a contemporary fabric,” the Times reported in 1998.)
An excerpt from Alexander Goehr’s version of “Arianna.”
King, in contrast, said that he considered his relationship with Monteverdi to be pedagogical. “Many of the world’s most inspiring teachers take the trouble to also study new disciplines, deliberately placing themselves at the other end of the teacher/pupil axis,” he said. “It’s why I began studying tai chi! The reverse process to scoping out the composer’s intentions is to become the composer oneself. As a composer, I imagined myself as Claudio’s student, within a seicento tradition of apprenticeship. I used his complete works as models to imitate, and I also tried to apply his working methods as evidenced in his letters and correspondences.” Speaking with King, it was apparent his search had a great many facets. He listed a prodigious array of sources consulted, including eyewitness accounts, letters from Monteverdi to his patrons concerning “Arianna,” contemporary treatises on the performance of opera, and even paintings and documents about the soprano who sang the lead role in 1608. “Frankly, anything I could get my hands on from this period was devoured and filed away in my memory (whether consciously or subconsciously) to emerge when needed,” he said.
Still, King was keen to stress that the project was not without boundaries or guidelines. “I felt that this project was both more scientifically based, and more experimentally free, than the typical ‘reconstruction’ projects we hear these days, usually just an assemblage of plausible repertoire linked to an attractive historical happening.” Rather than simply make a pastiche, he sought to find out how Monteverdi used dramatic language. “I took as my models Monteverdi’s compositions, circa 1608. Over the course of three months (the time it took Monteverdi to write “Arianna”) I consciously employed techniques of cut and paste, pattern recognition, transformation, declamation and re-composition,” he said. In many of Monteverdi’s works, a word will be set in similar ways; King used historical information in choosing to set strali, or “rays,” in a downward direction, for example. But in looking at the settings of other words, he detected patterns in syllabic setting, allowing him to try out an imitation of Monteverdian “language.” King said, “I declaimed aloud every single line of the libretto, searching for the best rhythms and speech contours. Once the gestures were decided, the music had to correspond.” Yet despite his painstaking approach to “Arianna,” when I asked him to reflect on what the overall project might give us, he said only that it would offer some “irresistible grist to the mill of critics and musicologists.”
King’s project reminded me of Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, in which several monks are murdered at a monastery in medieval Italy, the common thread between them being their access to the library’s restricted section. It’s soon apparent that there’s a book missing from library, and whoever is committing the murders wants to keep it that way. The Name of the Rose is a thriller about the search for a real book which remains missing to this day: a remaining portion of Aristotle’s Poetics, a treatise on comedy.
What The Name of the Rose and “ARIANNA: a la recherche” have in common is a deep faith in the potential significance of the works they hope to “find.” But there are limits to the insight we can gain into a two-and-a-half hour opera from 15 minutes of source material, and from the outside, King’s reconstruction may even seem like anathema to the early music field’s general endeavor to perform music as composers would have heard it in their own time. “Of course, even in the music-only ‘reconstructions’ of particular events, what we know for sure is out-weighed by what we must remake, to the best of our knowledge,” King said. “Even a historically informed production of a complete Monteverdi opera requires many artistic and creative decisions to be made at every level, from rank-and-file string players, individual singers and the stage director, to the place of a continuo section in lieu of a conductor.” King’s views are not abnormal, as the historical performance community has gradually embraced more flexible and far-reaching standards for the idea of authenticity. In the 1990s, scholars Bruce Haynes (The End of Early Music) and Richard Taruskin (Text and Act) described the limits of reviving the past, invoking the common sense, day-to-day decision making processes that transpire in historically informed performances. King seemed to echo such sentiments. “The word ‘reconstruction,’ like the word ‘authenticity,’ perhaps promises more than we can ever deliver,” he said. “But in recent years, audiences have come to understand what a ‘reconstruction’ can be, giving the word a particular meaning within our current early music culture.”
Monteverdi, “Lamento d’Arianna”; R. Alessandrini (Conductor), Concerto Italiano
When asked if “ARIANNA” qualified as a reconstruction, King answered, “I chose to avoid this word, since it might imply a higher level of similarity between my creation and Monteverdi’s original than could ever be achieved.” Even the famous “Lamento,” which exists in a manuscript for solo voice and continuo and a subsequent arrangement for five voices, had to be researched and doctored. “In descriptions of the opera, we’re told that the ‘Lamento’ was accompanied by ‘violins and viols,’ interspersed with commenting choruses from an ensemble of fishermen. Even the little that we have left of ‘Arianna’ requires considerable compositional intervention to reflect eyewitness accounts,” King has written. Indeed, the apparent combination of experimentation and historical research gave inspiration for the name of the project. At the suggestion of Georgy Isaakian, artistic director of the Theatre Natalya Sats, the title of the project included the words “à la recherche.” “I liked the double-meaning of recherche as ‘research,’ and as a Proustian search for something perdu, ” King said. “The implication is that the lost item will never be found again, but that the search itself has deep value.”
The concept of time was at the center of “ARIANNA,” which was performed without a conductor, but guided by the principle of tactus, a kind of pulse maintained by the musicians. “The steady slow rhythm of tactus, embodied in strong concentration on the relaxed swing of your arm, is itself hypnotic,” King told me. “Like the cliché rhythmic swinging of a watch, it creates attention, focus, rapid eye movement, all which mimic the sensations of being in a trance. The slow beat of the tactus is at around one pulse per second, or the heartbeat of someone who is relaxed.” But it became apparent that its hypnotic quality is not just figurative for King, but more literally a means of holding the ensemble together. As well as being a harpist, conductor and qualified sailor, he is also a certified hypnotist. “My hypothesis is that experiences of particular states of consciousness such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘low’ or a musician being ‘in the zone,’ are all particular manifestations of an altered state of consciousness (you could also call it a hypnotic trance), a way of being that optimizes collaboration between the conscious and subconscious mind, between mind and body, between individuals in a team,” he said. “In my own playing, I notice that keeping my mind on the tactus allows me to stay calm, even in demanding fast passage-work. No matter how fast my fingers need to move, my inner focus is on that slow swing: even the fast bits still feel slow and steady.”
Nunzio Secondo’s Aria from the Andrew King’s “ARIANNA: a la recherche”; Victor Sordo (Tenor), Xavier Diaz-Latorre (Theorbo), Andrew King (Baroque Harp), The Harp Consort
King added that the Proustian or Newtonian concepts of linear time were unknown to Monteverdi. “Monteverdi’s view of time and rhythm was based on Aristotle’s Physics, which states that time is ‘a number of movement in respect of before and after.’ Time does not flow of its own accord, but is only perceptible through movement. There was no concept of an absolute time, compared to which music might run faster or slower.” King noted that the tactus is something more “felt” than set. Without metronomes or clocks to give you a number of beats per minute, human memory and sensitivity have to take over. But on his blog he challenges his readers to see if they can remember the exact pace of a ticking clock, or if they can accurately guess when 12:15 will be after they hear a clock strike noon. “Think about it. Your estimate of time will naturally be influenced by your surroundings and your own state of mind: if you are in a hectic mood, you might err on the fast side; if you are feeling particularly relaxed, you might err on the slow side,” he wrote. “At a deep, ‘instinctive’ level, renaissance musicians felt that the steadiness of this tactus was connected to human health, even to the stability of the entire universe. In this sense, Monteverdi’s works really are ‘music of an earlier time.’ Musical rhythm must not falter, otherwise your heart might fail, the cosmos might fall!” ¶