The Baroque works of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) are no stranger to the Zürich public. Nikolaus Harnoncourt comprehensively explored the Italian visionary’s operas in the 1970s, conducting historically-informed works that focused on the inner conflicts of man and the depths of extreme human passions. Those insights into love, heartbreak and anguish marked a new milestone in the development of polyphonic music, solo song and the operatic genre as we know it today.

Ballett Zürich in Spuck's Monteverdi
© Gregory Batardon

In his last large production as ballet master here in Zürich, Christian Spuck’s new Monteverdi is staged primarily to music from the Baroque master’s Eighth Book of Madrigals, supplemented with compositions by several of his lesser-known contemporaries: Marini, Ferrari, Merula, Rognoni and Trabaci. In addition to the dancers, a corps of superb vocalists took their places discretely on various parts of the stage. While Spuck’s ballet is a study in melancholy and lost love, it is ably contrasted with sequences of real jubilation. Spuck periodically interlaces the Baroque works here with Italian pop songs that date from the 1950s and 1960s. Their inclusion is startling at first, but since their manifestations and mechanisms around love and loss have hardly changed through the centuries, the interpolations ultimately prove viable, enlightening and even humorous. Indeed, this degree of theatrics spills the production into the realm of music-theatre, a genre we’ve hardly seen from Spuck before.

Rufus Didwiszus’ uncomplicated stage decoration consisted of mottled gray and bare walls; a single moveable coulisse, stage right; and a wood-studded wall, left – an uncluttered backdrop that throws focus solely on the dancers. Their loosely falling, soft-hued costumes (by the gifted Emma Ryott) were understated across the group. That said, the female corps’ bundled golden silks in the highly jubilant final scene were nothing short of a visual feast.

Wei Chen
© Gregory Batardon

Featuring the combination of fine dancers from both the house’s two Zürich troupes, the Ballett Zürich and the Junior Ballett, Monteverdi included intimate pas de deux and several small group configurations. The dancers’ able coordination of thousands of steps, despite sometimes awkward positions, was close to mind-boggling. Spuck used the vertical space to greater advantage: capitalising again and again on the distance between stage floor and upward tips of heads or arms, taking advantage of every possible visual plane. Even work close to the floor was hardly uncommon.

The corps’ assignments – the fine details of a certain tilt of head, exact position of palms – were regularly interrupted by compelling soli. In separate pas de deux, both Jan Casier and Michelle Willems stood out particularly for their compelling portrayals of the human condition. Nonetheless, in her final sequence, the fact that Willems’ figure seemed brutally close to death, but then came back twice like a song for more intricate interludes, demanded a certain suspension of disbelief. That said, some might argue that’s the very reason we go to the ballet.

Luca Afflitto and Achille De Groeve
© Gregory Batardon

In short, Spuck masterfully engaged every part of his dancers’ bodies and their stage space, unafraid to expand on even the most unusual perspectives, whether that be muscular bottoms, armpits or bony backs. Nor, to his credit, did he shy away from the portrayal of intimate, same-sex passion. The choreography of two men as devoted lovers was infinitely touching.

Finally, and not to be underestimated, a handful of superb professional singers expanded the ballet’s narrative from the stage, while a configuration of Orchestra La Scintilla players under conductor Riccardo Minasi supported from the pit. That chamber configuration also included viola da gamba and the marvelous theorbo, two instruments which added an authentic and wholesome dimension to the Baroque scores, and which, along with the singers, gave the performance an even heartier face.