The French ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, directed by founder Christophe Rousset, are celebrating their 25th season. Like many others this year, they are also celebrating Monteverdi’s 450th birthday, and brought concert performances of three of his lesser-performed works to this year’s Brighton Festival. The epic tales of tragedy and woe told in these three dramatic works just about fits into the Guest Director, poet Kate Tempest’s theme of the “Everyday Epic”. Two works from Monteverdi’s 8th book of Madrigali guerrieri, Il ballo delle ingrate and Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, were placed either side of Lamento d’Arianna, a surviving remnant of the lost opera. This follows a staged production of these works by Pierre Audi for Dutch National Opera, and the young singers from that production have joined Les Talens Lyriques to bring the three works into the concert hall.

Concert performances of previously staged productions can be problematic – the performers have to adapt to the absence of costumes, set and props, as well as dramatic action. Moreover, Brighton Dome is a relatively dry concert hall, perhaps lacking in the requisite atmosphere for such dramatic music. There were some strong, powerful voices here, notably bass Nathanaël Tavernier (Plutone) and mezzo-soprano Valeria Girardello (Venere). But herein lay the main problem with this performance. Whilst there was some fine singing, this was not always suited to the repertoire, and lightness and agility were often sacrificed for weighty, dramatic delivery.  

The missing opera Arianna and Il ballo delle ingrate – a dance/song combo  were both written for the wedding of Francesco Gonzaga in Mantua. In the former, Monteverdi surrounds a central dance section with a dramatic plot and a moral for the new bride, with the four Ingrates ending with the message, “Learn pity, ladies and maidens”, before returning to the Underworld. Arianna tells the story of Ariadne (Arianna) and her abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos, and was by all accounts hugely successful. However, the music was never published, and the Lament is all that we have. Monteverdi took text from Tasso’s epic tale of a duel between a Christian knight and a Muslim woman disguised as a man for his one-act dramatic work, Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, giving him the perfect vehicle for highly emotional and evocative writing, in the “stile concitato”, or “agitated style”. His graphic depiction of the duel and the subsequent tragic denouement is indeed highly affecting, and it apparently moved the audience to tears at the first performance.

In Il ballo delle ingrate, soprano Ginette Puylaert (Amore) had a light, delicate voice, which was rather dwarfed by Valeria Giradello’s full-bodied Venere. Yet Puylaert’s style was more suited to Monteverdi’s music, and it allowed her greater flexibility for the complexity of rhythms and text delivery than Giradello. Puylaert proved to be an exception, however, with the issue of weighty singing obscuring detail recurring throughout the evening. Tavenrier has an impressively rich, deep bass voice, and would surely be convincing in bigger, later repertoire, but here the weight of his delivery overpowered the subtleties of the music. Mezzo-soprano Magdalena Pluta, despite giving a dramatically passionate performance of Lamento d’Arianna, struggled to keep ensemble with the players in the faster text passages, where a lighter touch would have helped. Similarly Nicolas Maraziotis (Testo), though impressive in his command of his lengthy role in Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, also got bogged down slightly in the rapid text sections, and initially his full tenorial attack led to some slightly overblown tuning. One moment of simplicity that stood out, however, was the quartet of Ingrates delivering the moral at the end of Il ballo delle ingrate. Here, Monteverdi sets the quartet of female voices with such beautiful transparency, unaccompanied, and in total contrast to the florid writing for Pluto, and the four singers here sang with touching restraint.

Rousset and his fine band deserve high praise, however. The strings were particularly energetic and perky in the dance rhythms of Il ballo delle ingrate, and they relished the battle sounds of striking swords and horses’ hooves in Combattimento. Rousset directed with clarity and precision from the keyboards, including a brief burst on the regal to accompany the arrival of the Shades from the Inferno in Il ballo. The harp and cello sensitively accompanied the Ingrate’s lament, and Rousset’s florid harpsichord ornamentation for Arianna’s pleas, “O Madre, o Padre” seemed fittingly desperate.

So this was a performance with many strengths, not least from Rousset and the players of Les Talens Lyriques, and it is great to see these works performed here in Brighton. But the combination of mostly heavy vocal delivery and a dry concert setting was ultimately not an entirely successful match.