Following a string of triumphant performances in music capitals across Europe, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the English Baroque Soloists take their seven-month “Monteverdi 450” tour across the Atlantic for performances in Chicago’s Joan W. and Irving B. Harris Theater for Music and Dance (Oct 12-15) and in New York’s Alice Tully Hall as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival (Oct 18-21), bringing their epic journey to its conclusion. Both cities will see concert performances of all three of the Venetian master’s surviving operas – L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and L’incoronazione di Poppea – continuing the celebration of the 450th anniversary of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), long recognized as the father of opera. For Gardiner, whose lavishly praised choral ensemble was created more than five decades ago expressly to perform the music of the composer for which it is named, the tour represents music-making on a scale that has rarely been matched, joining his year-long Bach Cantata Pilgrimage, undertaken to mark the beginning of a new millennium in 2000, as one of the crowning achievements of his singular career.
From its launch in April in Aix-en-Provence, where Gardiner – the winner of more Gramophone Awards than any other living artist – led Ulisse for the first time in his distinguished career, to complete trilogies at the Salzburg Festival, Musikfest Berlin, Lucerne Festival, Edinburgh Festival, Venice’s La Fenice and, most recently, in Paris, the conductor and his forces have received rapturous ovations and unanimous critical acclaim. Under the headline “magical and memorable Monteverdi,” London’s Guardian praised the “exceptional performances of Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea” and the “equally outstanding” account of L’Orfeo: “Those who have been fortunate enough to hear all these performances will have seen how Gardiner’s hand-picked lineup of soloists has been knitted into a real company. … Binding it together was Gardiner, knowing exactly when to allow the drama to unfold naturally, when to give it an extra push, and how to give the ceremonial moments, with cornetti and sackbuts to the fore, regal and magical power.”
A five-star review of L’Orfeo in London’s Times concluded, “Monteverdi’s genius shone through at every turn in this vibrant, heartfelt performance.” A review of L’incoronazione di Poppea in the same paper noted, “Monteverdi’s 400th birthday in 1967 barely registered except in the more recherché enclaves of academe. It’s a different story for his 450th. The first great baroque composer has become mainstream and is everywhere. I doubt, however, that I will attend a more stylish celebration than this semi-staging of his last masterpiece.”
How much the advocacy of Gardiner and his ensemble for the composer over the past five decades contributed to the change in Monteverdi’s reputation in our own time is impossible to quantify, but also probably impossible to overestimate. Gardiner has called Monteverdi “the first composer to find musical expression for human passion,” noting that over the centuries since their creation, his operas have lost none of their power: “The full unchanging gamut of human emotions – bewildering, passionate, uncomfortable and sometimes uncontrollable – form the subtext of all of Monteverdi's surviving musical dramas. More often than not, he shows a deep empathy for his characters – including the less salubrious ones – just as his contemporary Shakespeare does. Both reveled in juxtaposing tragedy with lowlife comedy. Both men lived on the cusp of exciting, and dangerous, cultural worlds. By performing the trilogy in consecutive performances we hope to take audiences on a voyage – from the pastoral world to the court and the city, from myth to political history, from innocence to corruption, from a portrait of man subject to the whim of the gods, to a hero imprisoned by his human condition, and finally to a dual portrait of mad lovers, uncontrolled in their ambition and lust. Who is the true victor in the end? Perhaps the music.”
Although Gardiner has yet to record Ulisse, he, the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists have made definitive Deutsche Grammophon recordings of both other operas. Starring Sylvia McNair, Anne Sofie von Otter, and Michael Chance, their 1996 Poppea was chosen for inclusion in the Penguin Guide to the 1,000 Finest Classical Recordings, while their 1987 L’Orfeo, with Anthony Rolfe Johnson and von Otter, “is regarded as a benchmark achievement” (Guardian). More recently, Gardiner and the ensembles won similar accolades for L’Orfeo in live performance. In 2015, their rendition at Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center was hailed as “a wholly involving evening of drama and music at the highest level” (Washington Post), and at London’s BBC Proms, the Telegraph critic reported: “[Gardiner’s] mastery seems effortless. … A capacity audience was clearly enthralled, as I was.”