Rinaldo Alessandrini is rated both as a top harpsichordist and as one of the top performers of early opera, leading Concerto Italiano, the ensemble he founded in 1984 and with whom he has recorded extensively. In Monteverdi's anniversary year, he is uniquely qualified to give an Italian viewpoint.

Rinaldo Alessandrini © Lorraine Wauters
Rinaldo Alessandrini
© Lorraine Wauters

Bachtrack: You’ve been described as “making Italian music sound Italian again”. Is there a uniquely Italian sound, and if so, how do you achieve it?

RA: The sound of the Italian language is essentially a vowel sound. This feature, based on extremely pure sounds, also influences the instrumental performance. I do not know if this sound can be described as “the only” Italian sound. But it is certainly the paucity of Italian consonant sounds, compared, for example, to German or English, which enhances the expression of the vowel sound and explains the interest in the cantabile, which can be seem from the beginning of the seventeenth century.

You have recently conducted Orfeo, Ulisse and Poppea at La Scala and in Paris. Tell us about the experience of these productions.

Obviously, it was not the first time I've conducted these operas. The most complex aspect to be solved was definitely the size of the theatre. The operas of the first half of the 17th century have the need to be mostly spoken. Solving the fear of space by beginning to “sing” is not the best solution. In fact, finding an ideal way of resolving acoustic problems took more effort than solving problems relating to style.

The continuo group has been strengthened, but without carrying out misplaced instrumentation or straying completely away from the style. Modern theatres can be a problem when we try to reproduce sounds and balances that are an essential part of this style – remember that Venetian theatres in the first half of the century were made of wood or stone.

Recreating a Monteverdi opera is complex, since we have so much less detail in the score than for later operas. How do you approach this complex task?

We cannot look at a 17th century opera as we do at Handel or Mozart. We know perfectly well how Venetian theatres worked at this time: we know what was permitted and used, and what was not at all in use. The problems arise when a conductor is afraid of the “emptiness” of these scores and pretends to compensate with arrangements or heavy instrumentations: he then loses the focus of this style, which is mainly based on a clever vocal performance, where the point is a perfect mixture of singing and speaking attitude. The music is less important, perhaps.

Concerto Italiano © Massimiliano Marsili
Concerto Italiano
© Massimiliano Marsili

What first attracted you to Monteverdi’s music?

The compositions of Monteverdi transcend the concept of style. Monteverdi spent his whole life constantly researching style, to take him to the most perfect “imitation of ideas”. In this sense, Monteverdi does not follow fashion but provides constant food for thought, both to his contemporary composers and to performers of today. If you are trying to achieve emotional truth, it is the music of Monteverdi that is the biggest challenge, the hardest to teach and the most interesting.

Faced with a listener who knows nothing of Monteverdi’s music, what would you say as an “elevator pitch” that would persuade them that this is music that must be heard?

The modern listener, approaching Monteverdi, cannot ignore its relationship with the literary text. If you don't have a perfect understanding of the text and an emotional relationship with it, you will only get half the pleasure of listening to his music. But if you do understand the millimetre precision of the way in which Monteverdi's composition of music reflects the texts, you will appreciate the miraculous balance of a creative concept as simple as it is sophisticated.

Monteverdi is described as a baroque composer, but his vocal writing is a long way away from, say, Bach or Handel. Tell us what’s different about singing his music: what makes a great Monteverdi singer, and what should the audience be looking out for?

The vocal style of the first half of the 17th century is unique. It cannot even be compared to that of the years immediately following, when a gradual reversal in the relationship between music and text occurs and when purely musical dimensions such as arias are beginning to establish themselves in the structure of the music.

The starting point was the “recitar cantando”: an art based primarily on ambiguity. In the early years of the century, composers and singers decovered the emotional power of a text, more or less in tune, which gave them space to develop the most sophisticated and elegant ornamental formulas to create this consummate art of "singing declamation". Almost nothing of this remains in the second half of the century, by which time the vocal technique has gradually adapted to the new stylistic requirements of a greater amount of sound. What was known then as the gorgia technique, thin and light, has become today’s agility technique.

There are so many ways to sing Monteverdi - different ways to decorate, approaches to improvisation, etc. Do you ever have fights with singers over this?

Vocal art of the first half of the 17th century is one of the finest and complex style in singing. There is a very small place for improvisation, if improvisation means “whatever” note added to an original line. The audience was expecting a very precise – and wide – range of ornamentation, and several documents inform us about this refined art. The fully-written version of ornamented music can be very challenging for a modern singer that doesn’t know the soul of this style or doesn't use an adequate vocal technique. I never fight with singers – there is no need for it – but it is essential, when you approach this music, to be informed about what is needed, what should be avoided and the best way to accomplish the requirements of the style.

What are the top Monteverdi works that you would recommend to get to know his music? And why is each of these special?

I really cannot make a choice. But for a not-experienced Monteverdi music listener, I could suggest listening to Hor che ìl ciel e la terra from the Eighth Book of Madrigals, or Laetatus sum from the 1610 Vespers.

If you could go back in time and ask Monteverdi one question, what would it be?

I would like to have been invited to some of his rehearsals in Mantua or in Venice.

Give us some highlights of music you’re playing that we should look out for in 2017, including your Monteverdi anniversary celebrations...

We have already visited Carnegie Hall with Poppea and toured China and Australia with Orfeo and Vespers. Next are some more European concerts in Spain, Austria and Italy and a Japanese tour in June. We will be working on a new Bach project and some more italian instrumental music. I’m also engaged in my Festival in Lugo di Romagna, where we offer three weekends, performing a wide selection of baroque music, from opera to chamber.

What are the places you love best for performing baroque music?

The main demands concern the acoustics and the relationship with the audience. In this sense, the churches and the old buildings offer the most effective solutions. But sometimes, even concert halls with the driest acoustics can turn out to be an unexpected help, especially with large ensembles. But generally I like to play sacred music in churches, rather than in theatres.

What’s the first thing you do when a concert or opera has finished?

I am thirsty!