It is arguably with his Monteverdi cycle (Orfeo, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse and L’Incoronazione di Poppea) in the early nineties that Pierre Audi put Dutch National Opera on the map. This season, the company honours the composer’s 450th anniversary with two smaller-scale productions by its artistic director. Next month will see the première of a staged version of the Marian Vespers, as part of the Holland Festival. In the days surrounding the composer’s actual birthday on May 15th, the company gave a series of performances of Madrigals, a production that originally dates back to 2007.

Nathanael Tavernier (Plutone) © Hans van den Bogaard
Nathanael Tavernier (Plutone)
© Hans van den Bogaard

This is a seamless staged performance of three madrigals by Monteverdi: Il ballo delle ingrate (The ballet of the ungrateful women) and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (The battle of Tancredi and Clorinda) – both taken from his Eighth Book of Madrigals – interpolated with the more famous Lamento d’Arianna (Ariadne’s lament), which is actually the only surviving scene of a lost opera. All three pieces have death as a central theme. In Ballo, Venus and Cupid implore Pluto to bring ungrateful women temporarily back from the dead in order to give others a lesson in compassion. In the Lamento, Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus, contemplates death and suicide. In Combattimento, Tancredi kills an enemy in a single combat, only to discover that the armoured enemy is his beloved Clorinda.

Nicolas Maraziotis (Testo), Pawel Konik (Tancredi) and Lissa Meyvis (Clorinda) in the fight scene © Hans van den Bogaard
Nicolas Maraziotis (Testo), Pawel Konik (Tancredi) and Lissa Meyvis (Clorinda) in the fight scene
© Hans van den Bogaard

The show is conceived for a relatively intimate space and was this time staged at the company’s workshop, in a large rectangular shed out of the city centre. The audience sits in wooden stands laid out in the length of the room, directly on the sandy floor which makes do as a stage. Sitting at the extreme right of that space are Les Talens Lyriques. Reduced to a small ensemble of 10 musicians, including Christophe Rousset who conducts from behind the harpsichord and organ, they play superbly, punctuating text being sung with utter elegance and unravelling the score’s eerie little dissonances. At the lute, Charles-Edouard Fantin is particularly memorable.

With such little distance between public and performers, the audience is taken into a full-on sensorial experience. Visually, it is a spectacle with pleasing aesthetics. The minimalist sets consist of a sandy floor from which emerges one single rock. The backdrop, meanwhile, is a concrete wall, sparsely decorated with worn wooden planks. The chiaroscuro lighting enhances the folds in the Ungrateful Women’s boticelli-esque dresses and magnifies Tancredi and Clorinda’s shiny Renaissance armours. The public can smell the smoke coming out from the gaping doors of Pluto’s den, or the sand flying under the performers’ feet. In the first rows, the heat coming from the flames that encircle Pluto can clearly be felt.

Pawel Konik (Tancredi) and Lissa Meyvis (Clorinda) © Hans van den Bogaard
Pawel Konik (Tancredi) and Lissa Meyvis (Clorinda)
© Hans van den Bogaard

This is a staging that requires a lot of physicality from performers. In Combattimento, baritone Pawel Konik (Tancredi) and soprano Lissa Meyvis (Clorinda) have to perform a tightly-choreographed single combat wearing 35-kilogramme armour. The clanks of colliding armours nearly cover the pizzicatos and tremolos coming from the orchestra. In Ariadne’s lament, Polish contralto Magdalena Pluta (Arianna) does not shy away from physically challenging dramatic effects either. As she struggles to pull out a winding rope from under the sandy floor, her shattered character audibly runs out of breath, almost panting with despair and exhaustion.

Produced by Dutch National Opera’s talent development program, Madrigals is again entirely cast with young singers. Ten years ago, the cast included Judith van Wanroij, Christianne Stotijn and Emiliano Gonzales-Toro. Last Wednesday, I particularly enjoyed listening to Italian contralto Valeria Girardello as Venus and Greek tenor Nicolas Maraziotis as the Narrator in Combattimento. The most impressive performance, however, came from French bass Nathanaël Tavernier who allied striking stage presence and an appealing coffee-coloured dark timbre as Pluto.