If you were to cut Sir John Eliot Gardiner, he would probably bleed Monteverdi. 450 years from the composer's birth, Gardiner will be touring the world with performances of his three surviving operas, L'Orfeo, Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea.

Sir John Eliot Gardiner at Monteverdi's tomb, Basilica dei Frari, Venice
© Michele Drosera

DK: Monteverdi’s ability to convey different emotions through the wrapping of music around words is still unsurpassed. What is it that makes this mastery?

It's very difficult to define exactly, but I think it's very much linked to the time in which he lived and the context from which he emerged. If you think of the extraordinary group of artists and scientists and philosophers and writers who were all flourishing around 1600 – Shakespeare, Monteverdi, Caravaggio, Rubens, Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, Cervantes – you have a whole gallery of luminaries all informed by what we would call a scientific outlook: they are looking at hard facts, observing the world, society and how human beings function within society. You could say the same of 100 years before, but the difference is that in 1600 the church is in turmoil, and even though Caravaggio, Rubens and Monteverdi are all working from time to time for the church, they're not the servants of the church in the way Leonardo and Michelangelo were. There's a much greater emphasis on humanity and on secularity and it's also a time when music seems to have caught up the other arts. Back in 1500, the time of the great Florentine, Venetian and Roman painters, music was still in the dark ages, in a post-Josquin world of polyphonic perfection. However much one admires Josquin or Palestrina, you would never say that they were reflecting human emotions in the way that Michelangelo and Leonardo were.

But even against this background, Monteverdi's achievement is a huge leap ahead of the game...

It is huge: music is catching up fast. Monteverdi is head and shoulders above his contemporaries, because composers like Caccini and Peri are attempting to reconstruct this slightly bogus notion of ancient Greek music drama but do not have the wherewithal, the technique or the musical flair. They wrote quite charming melodies, Caccini particularly, but they didn't create the friction between a supporting bass line and a melody line that produces tension and relaxation, which is so central to Monteverdi's art and which he does so supremely well. All the time, he is combining something very old-fashioned in terms of polyphony with something right up to the minute in terms of the new recitative style. He explored in his madrigals different permutations of voices and different poets like Guarini, Tasso and Petrarch, whose subject matter is love, profane love and its complications and its torments and its disappointments: he trained himself as a musician to reflect those emotions in a more profound and comprehensive way than his contemporaries.

© Sim Cannetty-Clarke

Funnily enough, I think Monteverdi is closer to his early 17th-century English contemporaries like Wilbye and Gibbons and Weelkes, who are close to the metaphysical poets of the day, Herbert and Donne, in isolating different facets of human emotion and encapsulating them in music. But none of those English madrigalists, wonderful though they be, wrote an opera. Monteverdi expanded that onto the much bigger canvas of Orfeo.

He's also writing church music like the Vespers, which to me is just as theatrical as Orfeo. In a way, they're twins: Orfeo is very spiritual as well as being pagan, and the Vespers is very secular as well as being religious. The adoration of the Madonna, the sexuality of those texts from the Song of Solomon, is not a million miles away from secular opera. So Monteverdi has this unique ability to touch all bases simultaneously. He can do Palestrinian counterpoint, he can do recitative, he can do miniature madrigals, but he can also do what nobody else can, which is to combine all those things together. And he has a sort of superabundant empathy for human beings, for grieving parents, for jilted lovers, for highly sexualised lustful love, for highly spiritualised love, it's all part of this encompassing range of emotions with which he is able to find a resonance in his music.

Did opera lose something when, shortly after Monteverdi, it started to be focused on being a star turn for vocal pyrotechnics?

Utterly. If you take opera between Orfeo in 1607 and Poppea in 1640 and compare it to 100 years later, I think opera has run into trouble. It's become a two paced affair: secco recitative where all the action takes place, and then moments of reflection in the da capo aria, which is an essentially anti-dramatic device. And the very fluidity that Monteverdi created has been compromised: you can see it happening in Cavalli and Cesti and Rossi.

Take Handel, an operatic genius when he writes his Agrippina for Venice. There are still elements of Monteverdian style in Agrippina, ariettas and a mosaic of recitative and short arias burgeoning into bigger groupings, but the seeds of decay are already there. I don't believe that opera started off primitively and then grew in stages and became perfect; I think it had a very bumpy graph.

Accademia Monteverdiana rehearsals in Venice, April 2016
© James Cheadle

The dramatic aspect of opera – how to create theatrical effect – did reach new highs later, with Verdi and Puccini, and that strikes me as problematic in Monteverdi. The two longer operas, particularly, can drag on stage, if not dealt with well.

Well, that's the key: "if not dealt with well". Sometimes, in performance, they do drag, and that can be for different reasons. One reason, which has happened in the past, is to try to accommodate Monteverdi operas too much into a later style, which was both cleverly and also fatally done by Raymond Leppard at Glyndebourne in the 60s: cleverly because he was such a brilliant writer of Monteverdian pastiche, but he also accommodated the operas much more to the world of Franz Lehár and Puccini than to Monteverdi's. At another extreme, one can take a very hair shirt, authenticist position where the operas never ignite because everything is done in such a stilted and over-respectful way.

I don't think there are intrinsic flaws in either the Coronation of Poppea or Ulysses, which I think is brilliantly calibrated. The very slowness of Penelope's final acceptance of Ulysses gives an incredible tension to the whole thing, you think "well surely she's got it now" and she will accept him, particularly once you've got through the archery trial and then the routing of the parasites from the court. But, Minerva still has to see Juno, has to go and see Jove and then Neptune before the final acceptance is prompted by the nurse. I think Monteverdi sustains that tension brilliantly, but you have to believe in it and you have to grab your audience's attention. I think it's possible. It's one opera I've never done, so I'm looking forward to seeing if I can be proved right.

Because you don't get as much in the score as in later operas, the process of putting together Monteverdi opera is hugely more of an artistic effort. What is your approach?

Front cover of the score of L'Orfeo, published in Venice in 1609

We know a lot more about Orfeo than the other two, because it was published in Monteverdi's lifetime and we do have rubrics which tell us who should be playing at any given moment and give us an indication of the variety of textures. The danger is to take that as a template for the later operas, which were written not as court spectacle but for a public paying audience who are interested in star singers. Cash was strapped because it's not the plushness of the Gonzaga court or the Medici in Florence, and it seems that the orchestra was limited to a very small string ensemble and some continuo instruments.

Now, that raises the point: do you regard that as fixed in stone or do you allow yourself to expand the orchestral accompaniment? My answer to that is "Yes, you do" because I've been chosen to perform these works in some very big halls like the Philharmonie in Paris or the Philharmonie in Berlin; even La Fenice is quite big. Do you then add instruments or instrumental accompaniments where Monteverdi or the sources don't indicate it? My answer is "very rarely, and only for extreme special effect".

Take Penelope, for example, she is always with continuo until her final aria, for which Monteverdi writes string parts. This very reticence and its economy means that that is a big event and you don't want to forestall that and spoil its pleasure. But there are other moments, both for Ulysses and Minerva and Telemaco, where I think that solo continuo instruments will struggle to embellish in a meaningful, audible way in a large auditorium, and there I think it's possible from time to time to encourage a cornett player or a recorder player or a violinist to embellish an obbligato line. I'm not saying that's how it was done, but I don't think it's doing violence to the score. It's a slippery slope, and if you go on too far that way, you'll end up in Leppard land, which I'm not consenting to, even though I admire Ray Leppard hugely. So it's a balancing act really.

Historically, those obbligato lines would probably have been improvised. I've heard radically opposing views as to whether modern musicians should improvise...

It depends entirely on the skill of the players. I've got very skilled players with improvisation in their bloodstream and I have no difficulty saying "listen, in this next rehearsal, will you try embellishing this particular line" and if I think it's convincing or has the seeds of conviction, I wouldn't prescribe it and write it out. I would just say "carry on", or "actually, dear, perhaps not". I think it's horses for courses.

Monteverdi Choir at Anima Mundi Festival, Pisa
© Massimo Gianelli

We don't really know what the voices sounded like in the 17th century, so how does anyone with pretensions to perform these works historically deal with that fundamental fact?

I'm not sure that your premise is right, that people are trying to deal with these things historically. I'm a person in my early seventies living in 2017 and I want these pieces to live to an audience of people now. That doesn't mean I want to change the style or the grammar of the piece, but I do want to convey a flavour of what I believe to be the sound world of Monteverdi.

Short of recordings and documentation, while Monteverdi does describe voices quite astutely and cleverly in his letters, you're driven back to what works. And what doesn't work for me is on the one hand a kind of bel canto, all-purpose 19th century very cliched style of operatic delivery nor, on the other, a very flatly uninflected, pure, vegetarian line. I'm looking for purity of vocal emission allied to extreme attention to words and a capacity to encompass and transmit a wide range of emotion. This means making sure that every singer involved can speak the text with great eloquence before they start to sing it. That delivery, is it a monologue, is it an aparte, is it diagetic or is it imitative, who is it addressed to, that's crucially got to be worked out. Secondly, they have to know what the character is thinking or feeling at any given moment, to live that in their minds and in their imaginations, and to transmit that into their singing. It sounds easy; it's damn difficult.

Apprentices of the Monteverdi Choir and Orchestra at the Temple in 2015
© Sim Cannetty-Clarke


Are the requirements for your singers different when singing early baroque versus later baroque and then into romantic and modern opera?

There are specific qualities, but there are also things in common. You find the odd rare singer who can really do them all. I was extremely lucky in the 90s to be surrounded by extraordinarily versatile singers such as Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Sylvia McNair or Anne Sofie von Otter. There are a few singers who can do that today, but there is also a degree of specialisation which I think is more acute and more demanding.

I started an Accademia Monteverdiana three years ago, composed entirely of Italians, and I ran up against stylistic limitations in that they tended to gravitate to one of the two extremes I've been describing, either an extremely pure, uninflected and rather plain delivery, or a kind of Donizetti-Bellini delivery which didn't ring true. It became clear to me that I needed to expand my recruitment, and I've ended up with a cast with which I'm very, very happy, coming from all over the place: Justin Kim is American Korean, Lucie Richardot is French, Hana Blažíková is Czech, I have a few English singers, I have a few Italians. We work like crazy on the Italian, with the starting point that they all have to sing madrigals.

Italian poetry of the period has its own set of conventions, rhymes, metre etc. To what extent do the singers have to immerse themselves in that to be successful?

They do, in order to understand how Monteverdi bends the rules. You need to know exactly what a Terza rima is in order to understand how Petrarch or Tasso or Guarini set those texts, and that's before you come on to Striggio or Badoaro or Busanello, Monteverdi's librettists, then you have to see how Monteverdi inserts or doubles or repeats certain words for special effect and plays fast and loose.

Tell us about the staging of this year's performances: they're being advertised as "semi-staged".

That's wrong - they shouldn't be. It's misleading, because "semi-staged" sounds like half-baked or half-way house. We're presenting them as concert performances; they will start off like concert performances in the sense that you will see people in evening dress in a concert hall, with the difference that the orchestra is in the middle of the stage, which I've done before. I'm trying to get away from the conventions of proscenium theatre and all its accoutrements: stage machinery, costumes, makeup, lighting. But I'm seeking to subvert expectations so that people will come thinking this is going to be a concert performance and then find that it's something very different.

To a newcomer to Monteverdi, perhaps an operagoer happy with La traviata and Carmen and so on, what would you say to entice them across to Monteverdi?

It's in the performance that I would hope to persuade them! But I would say this: listen to and watch the modernity of Monteverdi. His way of conveying a particular mood, a particular dramatic situation has a rawness and a directness of expression which feels so much more contemporary to me than La traviata – which I adore – or La bohème. The very pared down texture, the very focus on this dynamic between a voice singing against and with and across a bass line, creates something much more like enhanced speech; it has musical beauty as well as just rawness that has currency in our time.

To me, the other types of opera – whether it be by my favourite composers such as Purcell, Rameau, Handel, Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Puccini, Janáček, possibly Britten – are very time-specific: when I think of their music, I think of the accoutrements of the society in which they were living and the conventions of their day. With Monteverdi, I don't do that: I think of him as somebody like you, sitting opposite me, to whom I can talk about the intensity of my feelings of grief, of anger, of tenderness, of lust, of all sorts of things.

Tell us about what makes a great venue for this kind of music...

I think intimacy, and that's not necessarily to do with size or space: there are certain halls where you can feel or can hear the audience breathing. It can be music in the round or it can be a modern concert hall like the Philharmonie in Paris, which is cleverly designed so that the audience really does feel as if it's right over the stage and close to you, or the Palau de la Música in Barcelona where you can feel its wackiness and its craziness, you can smell the Catalans, you can hear them breathe, you can contact them, it's just unbelievably visceral. Even at the Proms: the closeness of the prommers means that you can feel their intake of breath – that creates intimacy. You have to know as a performer not to inflate, not to overproject. If you've got fragile music – I did Orfeo at the Proms two years ago – you have to be able to draw the audience to you rather than shove it at them. I had the messenger come up one of the staircases, a private lute with her, and thread her way through the prommers onto the stage: devices like that can make a huge difference. Of course, the Royal Albert Hall is ridiculously, preposterously too big for that scale of music, but if there's focus, if there's intent and if there's real integrity of delivery, it's amazing what you can achieve.


The tour of the Monteverdi Trilogy starts in April 2017 in Aix-en-Provence with Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria, with the full set performed at Colston Hall in Bristol the same month. You can see the listings here.