Monteverdi Goes MTV

Does a great Baroque composer need fancy sets and sleek dancers?

It’s possible that Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society has enjoyed the adjective “venerable” longer than any other organization in the United States. Founded in 1815, it is nearly as old as the federal government, an outfit chronically lacking in veneration. For most of its years the Handel and Haydn Society was a classic purveyor of plummy Handel, Haydn, Bach, et al., with big orchestras and choruses. Today it is celebrated for historically informed performances on original instruments. The show the society is mounting this weekend at Cutler Majestic Theatre at Emerson College—an essay in postmodern Baroque multiculturalism, by way of history’s first staged version of Monteverdi’s Vespers—is another example of how in recent decades the old band has reinvented itself while staying true to its roots.

It’s worth being skeptical of giving old pieces the MTV treatment by decking them out with eye candy, but the choice of Claudio Monteverdi for that endeavor is an astute piece of judgment on the part of Handel and Haydn music director Grant Llewellyn and stage director Chen Shi-Zheng. Of all the giants of the Baroque period, Monteverdi is the most exuberant and the most theatrical. He can hold his own against any hullabaloo on any stage. Even standing alone, his Vespers conjures imagery and movement and all sorts of extravagance. From the leaping fanfares and nimble-footed dances of its opening, this is not the Lutheran piety of Bach but the sumptuous embroidery of a worldly Counter Reformation genius.

Born in Cremona, Italy, in 1567, Monteverdi was a prodigy who published his first pieces at 15. At 24, he joined the illustrious court of the Duke of Gonzaga at Mantua. There he worked for more than 20 years as an adornment and annoyance to the court: cranky, hypochondriacal, but wildly productive. By his 40s he was the most celebrated composer in Italy.

Monteverdi spent his career in the midst of a revolution in music, one he did not so much initiate as embody. A lot of it turned on the invention by a group of Florentine intellectuals, around 1600, of a genre called opera. Their intention was to re-create ancient Greco-Roman theater. What they actually did was to stumble on an entirely new concept: drama sung from beginning to end. In the process they helped change the way everybody wrote music. Said the intellectuals: To hell with counterpoint, the old, complex art of interweaving melodies. Let’s have the musical interest concentrated in a single melodic line. Only thus can we capture the intimate vicissitudes of emotion. And thereby was born the modern idea of a song: a tune supported by chordal accompaniment.

This change of philosophy is what divides the musical Renaissance from the Baroque. The man who bestrides that change of epochs is Monteverdi. A master of the old contrapuntal style (which he and the Baroque never entirely gave up), he picked up the new ideas and revealed what could be done with them. Composers down through the Beatles and beyond have reaped what Monteverdi sowed.

By 1610, famous as he was and with two hit operas to his credit, Monteverdi was feeling depressed and neglected in Mantua. He began prospecting for a new job. It was as a portfolio and tour de forcethat he composed the Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, aka Vespers of 1610. After serving many years in the post he ultimately landed, at St. Marks’ in Venice, he died in 1643, the towering musical figure of his time.

Fifty years later Monteverdi was forgotten, as happened to most composers in those days. His revival got off to a slow start in the 19th century, gained momentum in the 20th, and came of age with the explosion of early-music performance in the 1970s. In the last decade or so, the Vespers has shown signs of attaining the position it deserves, alongside Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s B Minor Mass, at the summit of the Western choral repertoire.

What Monteverdi brings to this exalted company of (literal) bigwigs is a singular brio and sense of drama. Of those three masterpieces, his Vespers is the sunniest and the most visceral. And though the Vespers has handsome stretches of traditional counterpoint, much of its style and pizzazz come from opera. For starters, that dazzling opening fanfare is lifted from his opera Orfeo.

In all his styles, Monteverdi vibrates to every nuance of emotion and character. He paints his texts with a fluid sense of form, always ready to turn on a dime, as we hear in the first Psalm setting of the Vespers, ” Dixit Dominus.” The Song of Songs * contain the sexiest parts of the Bible, and even if here the love songs are addressed to the Virgin, Monteverdi sets them as florid and sensual tapestries. Here’s “Pulchra es”: “Thou art beautiful, O my love.”

Some of the movements are grand and celebratory, like the ” Lauda, Jerusalem, Dominum.” But one of the most penetrating of the praise movements is “Duo Seraphim,” its two voices calling gently to one another, “Holy is the Lord God of Hosts.” The work ends with the “Magnificat,” the words of the Virgin Mary on learning she would bear the Messiah. Listen to how Monteverdi shifts instantly from the expansive to the intimate, then to the floridly contrapuntal.

For stage director Chen Shi-Zheng—in his youth a star in Madame Mao’s opera company during the Cultural Revolution, now living and working in the West—Monteverdi’s exaltation of the Virgin evokes images across cultures: the peasants in China who venerated their plastic-wrapped Virgins when they could be shot for having them; a photo of an Indonesian woman fleeing with a statue of the Virgin perched on her head; in Italy the kitsch Madonnas everywhere. Monteverdi wrote a love song to the Virgin, Chen says; this production is his love song to Monteverdi and to the Virgin, kitsch and otherwise—her little images are all over the set.

For what Chen calls his “dance ritual” he brings together Javanese court dance, the Balinese Lagon style, and Chinese martial arts, and welds movements from those traditions into a unified style, splendidly performed by his dancers to the splendid playing of Llewellyn and his troops. The set is cloudy gray hangings, chorus and players to the back and sides. The principal dancer is male; at times Monteverdi’s melismataseem to ripple across his back. Often the dancers float across the stage in mesmerizing slow motion; during joyful music their hands become butterflies and flames. Some of the most striking moments are made with the singers: a soprano in muted light, the music surging around her, declaiming over and over, “Holy Mary, pray for us!” as she slowly glides to the front of the stage. At the end, in glowing plastic columns that at once suggest kitsch Madonnas and a heavenly aura, three of the dancers are slowly drawn upward into the air, their hands tracing the stories in flowery movement of Balinese and Javanese tradition.

Chen Shi-Zheng has directed productions all over the world, the repertoire ranging from traditional Chinese to Wagner and Mozart. His success surely has much to do with his background in Chinese opera, giving him a powerful understanding of both drama and movement. There may well be nobody else who can do what he does. Chen and Llewellyn are dreaming of a cycle of all three Monteverdi operas plus the Vespers—their Monteverdi Ring Cycle, Llewellyn calls it. If they bring that off, it could do much for the careers of the society and the two directors, and no less of Monteverdi. Old Claudio belongs in the big league of Western composers. Handel and Haydn may be the outfit to put him there, once and for all.

Correction, Sept. 22, 2003: This article originally reported that the text of the “Pulchra es” was drawn from the Psalms. It was actually drawn from the Song of Songs. (Return to corrected sentence.)