Ingrained in poetic Shakespearean texts, notwithstanding their archaic yet delicious patois, there are themes that reach beyond their setting and generation. No one denies that his stories of unfulfilled love, betrayal, kings and queens, politics and comedies reveal that despite time gone by, technological advances and, for a lack of a better term, societal "progress," raw human emotions remain unchanged.
We haven't changed. Our hearts haven't changed.
Could Claudio Monteverdi be classical music's Venetian William Shakespeare?
It seems likely so.
"Monteverdi was revolutionary, really, for his time," Matthew Dirst, Ars Lyrica artistic director, says. "There's a famous argument between Monteverdi and a theorist by the name of Artusi. Artusi accused him of breaking the rules of counterpoint, to which Monteverdi replied, 'Well, so what. Yes, I did and for a good reason; namely for the expression of the text.' "
Though I was invited to observe and tape a rehearsal (watch the video above) of Ars Lyrica's collaboration with the New York Baroque Dance Company for Friday's and Sunday's performance of "Heaven and Hell" at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, that the dialogue between music and dance compelled a visceral reaction, even in a fluorescent-lit, uninspired space like a white box rehearsal room at the University of Houston, says something.
For Ars Lyrica's season finale musicale Dirst programmed four selections from Monteverdi's Madrigals of Love and War of 1638. Two of the works, Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda and Ballo delle Ingrate, call for choreography or pantomime. That's where New York Baroque Dance Company artistic director Catherine Turocy (read Nancy Wozny's CultureMap feature on Turocy here) enters this aesthetic exploration, amid a read-through of Il Combattimento.
"Most of the movement is inspired by the text itself and the poetry. There's a certain way of building gestures by looking at paintings and sculptures of the time."
See, Il Combattimento tells a tale of forbidden love between Tancredi, a Christian knight (dancer Matthew Buffalo), and Clorinda, a Muslim maiden-warrior (dancer Alexis Silver), the latter disguised as a man with a golden combat tunic and a helmet with a visor for battle — you know where this is going. Without recognizing each other, they engage in a raw fight that ends with the fatal wounding of Clorinda.
He removes her head covering. She begs to be baptized. She ascends to heaven.
Mezzo-soprano Sonja Bruzauskas, as Clorinda's voice, sings this rising, floating, slightly embellished melodic line that relieves tension, angst and sorrow with a ray of sunshine, courtesy of a shift to major harmonies.
Sigh. Pass the tissues, the gallon of ice cream and the box of bonbons. It's a moment.
Tenor Zach Averyt, as the voice of Tancredi, toys with your emotions. Baritone Michael Kelly as the narrator — well, he grabs you and doesn't let you go.
It's the kind of story that urges a viewer to yell out as if hoping the characters in a romantic chick flick would heed to the warning. But don't do it; Monteverdi's music won't listen even though the choreography intensifies such emotion.
"Most of the movement is inspired by the text itself and the poetry," Turocy explains in my video interview. "There's a certain way of building gestures by looking at paintings and sculptures of the time.
"What you see is a combination of working with John Bulwer's treatise Chirologia of 1644, which describes bitter anguish and astonishment, so that you have all these stock gestures and postures and attitudes of the body. The idea for a dancer is to find the energy of the movement in that and all the emotions that are in this particular piece, like a sense of regret, being indignant, being in love but not being to satisfy that love, wanting to be together but because of your two cultures you have to be apart."
"All baroque gestures are based on natural movement. . . It's recognizable because it's based on natural instincts."
Il Combattimento is a historical piece, but viewers will have no trouble relating to the subject matter.
"The gestures look baroque and modern," Turocy continues. "The idea is that all baroque gestures are based on natural movement. This is part of our lexicon of motion and body language that we have in Western culture, and some of that is shared by Eastern culture. It's recognizable because it's based on natural instincts."
When asked why there's a heightened curiosity for things from the past, Turocy posits:
"We are moving so quickly into the future that we are losing our groundedness. In a way to keep grounded people are pulling back to the past, not because they want to go there, because they want to understand the original inspiration of communication. Just in everyday conversations, because we are used to texting and giving little bites of information, poetry is going to be more important.
"We've lost the musicality of language. Maybe that's why we are going back to music in order to give (communication) gravity."
Perhaps that's why Monteverdi strikes a chord today.
Also on the program are Monteverdi madrigals Altri canti di marte and Hor ch’el ciel e la terra with soprano Melissa Givens, tenor Randolph Lacy and bass Timothy Jones, and dancers Glenda Norcross, Valerie Shelton Tabor and Natalie Young.
Ars Lyrica presents "Heaven and Hell" on Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 6 p.m., at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets start at $31.25, $21.25 for students, and can be purchased online or by calling 713-315-2525.