Review of the Festival d’Aix-En-Provence 2021: Combattimento, The Theory of the Black Swan
(Photo: Monika Ritterhaus)
“Combattimento, La Théorie du Cygne Noir” is a scenic work for eight singers, composed of madrigals, arias, lamentations and instrumental pieces from the Baroque period from 1630 to 1650. Directed by the musical director Sébastien Daucé and the stage director Silvia Costa for the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, it includes works by Monteverdi, Cavalli, Messino, Carissimi, Merula, Buonamente and Rossi. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the staging was only a superficial framework for the presentation of an interesting set of known and unknown musical pieces.
Costa’s starting point was Monteverdi’s madrigal “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda”, to which she added the other pieces, selected for their ability to advance the fundamental and structural themes of the work. In doing so, she wasn’t trying to weave a linear narrative. Instead, she wanted to encourage audiences to reflect on certain ideas and interpret what they witness with reference to their own lives. Costa, speaking in the program notes of his approach, declares: “I am working to build a universe which proceeds by images and symbols which is not univocal, and which must appeal to the personal experience of the spectator. To this end, Costa introduced the idea of seeing * Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda ”through the prism of the black swan theory of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
A Black Swan Event: Clorinda’s Death
A black swan event is a totally unexpected event that cannot be predicted and the likelihood of it happening is exceptionally low. The consequences, however, are potentially devastating. This is their impact, people feel the need to rationalize them after they happen, seeing them as something that could have been predicted and therefore avoided. It can happen at the individual or societal level, and forces the community as a whole to come together to understand how such a thing could have happened.
Therefore, the murder of Clorinda by Tancredi, the woman he loved, and believed to be a man because of her disguise, can be considered a Black Swan event, both in Tancredi’s life and for the community as a whole, which must mourn its disappearance and rebuild their lives. Clorinda’s death has destroyed a possible future and in doing so opens a dialogue for the exploration of different perspectives.
A symbolic presentation
Costa and Daucé decided to build “Combattimento, The Theory of the Black Swan” in three distinct parts, each one focusing on a particular aspect, with its own aesthetic, framed by Monteverdi’s madrigal “Hor che’l ciel e la terra” , with the first two lines forming the prologue and the last two lines forming the epilogue. Costa, herself, took on the role of set designer with the help of costume designer Laura Dondoli and lighting designer Bernard Purkrabek.
The first part is a performance of Monteverdi’s “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda”, presented by three singers playing the roles of Tancredi, Clorinda and the Narrator. Visually, it was a spectacularly constructed scene in which Tancredi and Clorinda were dressed in futuristic medieval costumes, wielding well-lit laser swords. The background was largely black on which symbolic images were projected that functioned at different levels of consciousness. The movement was slow and stylized, often guided by the narrator.
The second part focused on the lamentations caused by the death of Clorinda and consisted of Cavalli’s aria “Alle ruine del mio regno” from “Il Didone”, as well as pieces by Carissimi, Massaino and Merula. Everyone sees grief from a different perspective. Again, the staging was excellent, with the use of symbols playing a central role, although there were a few heavy examples, such as a woman walking around with a baby’s coffin on her head.
After the bereavement, the community must move forward and the third part focused on rebuilding. The community comes together and rebuilds itself. The singers, in modern attire, set out to build a utopia, with its verdant surroundings, high-rise towns, in which everything is carefully cared for, until another Black Swan event, in the form of a nuclear explosion, causes a new catastrophe. The musical pieces included three contributions by Cavalli from his operas “Egisto” and “Gli amori di Apollo e Dafne”, two by Rossi, including a five part oratorio “La cecitá del misero mortale” and a piece by Massaino.
The last two verses of Monteverdi’s madrigal “Hor Che’s ciel e la terra” for the eight singers concluded the work. The text can be read as a reflection on the inevitability of the events of Black Swan, which will mean that Man will never be able to build his Utopia. The last lines read “I was born and die a thousand times a day, I am so far from salvation.”
A solid and well-balanced cast
The eight sung parts were divided equally with four male voices, composed of two tenors, a baritone and a bass, and four female voices, comprising two sopranos and two mezzo-sopranos. There were a number of pieces in which the voices came together in various combinations to produce wonderful vocal polyphony, most notably in Rossi’s oratorio “La cecitá del misero mortale” in which the range of deep and colorful textures impressed. . The sweet balance between the singers and the subtle details with which they embellished the vocal lines were delightfully rendered.
Tenor Valerio Contaldo produced a strong, confident and professional performance in which his polished interpretation of the Narrator in “Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda” attracted attention. The voice was wonderfully expressive and malleable, in which its ornamentation of the vocal line was intelligently developed, and its ability to stroke words and imbue them with emotional depth was eloquently performed. In addition, it is a very attractive voice, with a pleasant timbre that does not diminish under pressure.
Julie Roset was equally impressive. His bright, fresh and exquisitely pure young soprano is truly delightful. Her performance as Clorinda, and later as a grieving mother, were both rendered convincingly. She has demonstrated considerable voice control and flexibility; the ornaments were beautifully crafted and his short trills were precise.
By far the most interesting voice was that of mezzo-soprano Lucile Richardot. His voice has a very distinctive timbre, which in some passages sounds quite extraordinary, and was particularly effective in evoking a feeling of suffering and pain in his interpretation of Cavalli’s lament “Alle ruine del mio regno”. It’s also a very versatile, colorful and engaging voice.
Baritone Etienne Bazola produced a refined and elegant performance, and was particularly effective in the role of Tancredi. It has a warm timbre with an inviting low register, creates carefully adorned phrases and sings with clarity.
Caroline Weynants has a seductive soprano with a seductive timbre. Her rendition of Merula’s spiritual canzonetta “Hor ch’e tempo di dormire” over light musical accompaniment was beautifully crafted and showed her voice with lovely effect.
Nicolas Brooymans has a fine, solidly positioned bass with a pleasant tonal regularity, from which he obtains a subtle color palette. He is also an efficient actor with a strong stage presence.
Tenor Antonin Rondepierre put in a solid performance, although solo opportunities were limited. Her singing was sure and her voice was versatile.
The final singer, mezzo-soprano Blandine de Sansal, also had relatively few solo singing opportunities, but made the most of them, displaying a well-supported voice with a high degree of expressiveness.
The early music group Ensemble Correspondances under the direction of Daucé was in great shape, producing a rhythmically vibrant and detailed performance that captured the emotional depth and sensitivity of the different moods of the rooms. Daucé’s management ensured that a close link existed between the orchestral ensemble and the singers.
“Combattimento, La Théorie du Cygne Noir” is an imaginative and well-constructed play which brought together works by a group from the early 17th century.e composers of the century and molded them into a framework related to our current approach to making sense of the world, in which we have given up our belief in creating a utopia here on Earth: the black swan theory provides us with an understanding like why it will always be an impossibility. It was also provocative work that required the audience to make an effort to respond to Costa’s imagery and symbolic references. Passivity was not really an option and would only have left the audience in awe.
At the end of the performance, the audience responded with warm and enthusiastic applause, which says it all.