I Fagiolini is a vocal group I have been trying to see live for quite a while now, so I was extremely excited to be attending the London offering of Insalata I Fagiolini at Cadogan Hall. Performing early repertoire in a fresh and exciting way is their niche (within a niche, within a niche, as we were informed by director Robert Hollingworth) and tonight we were to be treated to an evening of madrigals, some of which were inventively staged to illustrate the narrative of the text. Directed by Hollingworth, who also sang countertenor this evening, and enjoying a residence at York University, I Fagiolini are experts in this overlooked repertoire and this really shone through in their interpretation and beautiful portrayal of often quite complex texts in the vernacular, set to deceptively difficult music.

I Fagiolini © Eric Richmond
I Fagiolini
© Eric Richmond

We started with one of these amusing semi-staged affairs – with the singers walking on with a set of imaginary hand-bells to play. This really set the mood for the evening, and produced the first of many laugh-out-loud moments. This was followed by a set of French madrigals covering the whole spectrum of love’s joys and anguishes. The interaction between the singers, both visually and musically, was absolutely wonderful, even in these un-choreographed pieces. Everything appeared relaxed and easy, and the end result was simply stunning to watch. The beautifully lilting Un gentil amoureux was surprisingly simple, with the rhythmic structure being based entirely on the metrical longs and shorts of the poetry, and the singers put across the text with crystal clarity.

More laughs were to be had in Le chant de oyseaulx, which was sung again in a semi-staged fashion. The little tale of several overlapping love triangles accompanied by some hysterical bird imitations had me in fits of laughter throughout. However, it was with El fuego that we truly experienced the meaning of Insalata, that complex mix of languages and ever-shifting time signatures. The fire of sin in the sinners’ hearts of the text was successfully put out, with help from two unsuspecting audience members who were dragged up on stage for a kind of exorcism accompanied by some fun miniature percussion! The singing was superb throughout all the madness, which was truly impressive.

For the second half, we were treated to some madrigals which were composed for more formal occasions, such as one in honour of Queen Elizabeth I. The harmonic and rhythmic languages of these first few pieces were surprisingly modern in sound and incredibly complex; and always perfectly executed by our sextet of singers. However, we were soon plunged back into frivolity with a re-enactment of the “Game of the Goose”, complete with cheats, flirts, and even a sneaky kiss.

We ended with four short pieces of a quieter, more reflective nature, which again showcased the beautifully blended sound of I Fagiolini. The overlapping vocal lines of Volgea l’anima mia soavemente merged with each other as they moved from singer to singer, creating a seamless fluidity of movement. It was a riot of an evening, with everything from Monty Python to Monteverdi, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I Fagiolini certainly bring a little-known repertoire to audiences in a fun, unpretentious and approachable way, and this, combined with some wonderful ensemble singing, made for a night out to remember.

*****