Monteverdi’s Selva morale e spirituale – Moral and Spiritual Forest – represents the culmination of his religious works. This compendium of motets, madrigals and masses was published in Venice in 1641 at the end of a long and distinguished career. William Christie made an interesting selection for Les Arts Florissants, which hinted at Monteverdi’s racier and less-moral operatic subjects.
’Gloria’ (for seven voices) is one of the most dramatic and expansive works in the set. Constructed with alternating solos and duets – and choir for textual emphasis – this should be a real showstopper. Christie’s young singers did not convince. Uncertain entries and underpowered vocal lines were compounded with tuning problems, and Monteverdi’s trademark runs and suspensions did not resonate with beauty. ‘Chi vol m’innamori’ followed, a conversational piece about the pains of love and death with a joyous, syncopated and dance-like refrain. The contrasts were conveyed successfully with a light touch. A harp and theorbo link took us to ‘O ciechi, il tanto affaticar, a bleak meditation on the vanity of earthly possessions.
The singers’ delivery was forward and declamatory. ‘Adoramus te’ opens with a hymn-like verse, intercut with detailed and fragile exchanges. Vibrant distinctions in tone and texture are vital to Monteverdi’s colour palette and emotional effects and they were sadly lacking throughout. There were some lovely individual voices, especially Emmanuelle de Negri and Cyril Auvity, but as an ensemble the vocalists were not as-one or listening to each other in the way this repertoire demands, as exemplified by I fagiolini and The Sixteen.
The concert’s second half began with a substantial devotional motet, ‘Lamento del’Arianna’, based on all that remains of Monteverdi’s opera. Lucía Martín-Cartón’s sweet voice carried some meaning and melody, but did not mesmerise. The highlight was the sparkling ‘Beatus vir’, the most infectiously joyous of Monteverdi’s religious works, the singers now in their comfort zone. There was an encore, ‘Laudate Dominum’, from the Selva morale.