Graceful red and white goldfish swim deep underneath the high altar at the church of San Francesco, Ravenna. They dip and swirl across a vast Roman mosaic that once made up the floor of the crypt, now flooded by the waters that always threaten the foundations of this most ancient of Italian cities, where east met west long before Venice was even thought of.

Projection of Cerberus
© Luca Concas

San Francesco, with its little watery congregation, made an appropriate setting for a stand-out concert in this year’s Ravenna Festival, dedicated to Dante, the great poet who died in the city 700 years ago, and whose body lies in a tomb near San Francesco, where he worshipped. 

Entitled Vox in Bestia, the concert concerned the animals that appear in Dante’s Divina Commedia. Conceived originally for radio and here performed live for the first time, the concept is a simple one, using words and music to give voice to those that trot, creep, crawl and fly across the pages of Dante’s epic poetry. But simplicity ends there, for this was a virtuoso performance from the soprano Laura Catrani, the author and reader Tiziano Scarpa and video artist Gianluigi Taccafondo.

Tiziano Scarpa, Laura Catrani
© Luca Concas

Unaccompanied, with only a tuning fork to aid her, Catrani negotiated dramatic, contortedly complicated vocal lines with stylish ease, pushing herself to the limits of her three-octave range and employing all manner of techniques to emulate snakes, bees, wasps, falcons, dogs, doves and starlings. When not floating ethereally within her clear, liquid upper register she hissed, growled, barked and buzzed. It was utterly compelling.

Three composers contributed to the work, each taking the animals from an individual section of the Commedia: Fabrizio de Rossi Re, Inferno; Matteo Franceschini, Purgatorio and Alessandro Solbiati, Paradiso. Remarkably, these singular contributions made a cohesive whole, each composer employing similarly acrobatic vocal writing while also maintaining some individuality; Solbiati, for instance, often resorting to quasi-traditional melody before twisting it through a thoroughly contemporary lens. One can imagine the Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan one day relishing this repertoire.

Basilica di San Francesco
© Luca Concas

Catrani and Scarpa weaved back and forth through the three sections, with Scarpa providing a vivid commentary on the animals in the poetry, which he read with an easy, elegant clarity.

Unlike other churches in Ravenna, encrusted with jewel-like 6th-century Byzantine mosaics, the apse at San Francesco is stark plaster, making it an ideal canvas for Toccafondo’s attractive, sometimes scary, video projections of slithering snakes, swooping starlings, and a terrifying, Francis Bacon-like Cerburus. It was regrettable that their appearances were so fleeting as they added greatly to the success of the evening.

And here’s another remarkable thing. Entrance to this top-quality event was €1. The Ravenna Festival has long had a policy of pricing smaller events at this token price, thanks to generous sponsorship, both public and private. They want festival-goers to be adventurous, to try something they might not consider if it meant spending say €20 or €30. It works. Last night, a healthy (socially distanced) audience was transfixed for 50 minutes, rewarding the artists with sustained, enthusiastic applause. Other festivals, please note.