Monteverdi Vespers of 1610

The ambitious program of the 2015 BEMF of presenting 3
Monteverdi operas
and his Vespers of 1610 was well-received by the BEMF audience —
all of those productions were sold out. So those of us with
tickets got to feel fortunate relative to the long line of people
waiting in line or holding “I need one ticket”
signs. There was a lot of anticipaatory excitement as we found our

This production chose to use the forces available to Monteverdi
in 1610: 10 singers, continuo, 4 strings and 5 brass players.
There is some speculation that he wrote the work for his
job-hunting portfolio rather than for actual performance in
Mantua, but it’s likely that at least some of it was performed in
Mantua, with those forces.

The readers of this magazine will want to know about the
recorder playing. There is one movement (the Quia
from the Magnificat) which does include parts
for 2 recorders. You would expect the two cornetto players to
just pick up recorders, but in fact they did something more
complicated. One cornetto player, Alexandra Opsahl, did pick up a
recorder, but so did one of the sackbut players, Greg Ingles. The
reason for this became evident a couple of minutes later — they
still needed two cornetti, so the other cornetto player, Kiri
Tollaksen continued as a cornetto player, but Mack Ramsey, who
spent the rest of the week playing bass sackbut, picked up a
cornetto. Brass players who believe that you can’t possibly play
two different size mouthpieces should take note that both the
sackbut and the cornetto sounded fine when Mack played them.

In any case, the recorder was used as it usually is in this
period, to create a pastral, contemplative mood for the words, “He
has regarded the lowliness of his handmaid. For behold, from
henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

The Boston Early Music Festival Vocal Ensemble has developed
into a very flexible, well-balanced, and well-blended group. I
especially liked that in this performance the alto-range parts
were sung by both a male countertenor (Reginald Mobley,
replacing Nathaniel Medley) and mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell. I
think groups that sing the top line with female sopranos and all
the other parts with men can’t get as good a blended sound as if
you include both man and women on the middle parts. BEMF hasn’t
yet carried this to the point of using female tenors, but hiring
some mezzo-sopranos is a start.

While they’ve succeeded in getting voices that blend quite
well, they don’t yet have voices that are equally comfortable with
early 17th century ornamentation techniques, so there were several
places where one voice is supposed to echo another and they
sounded like the echo was low-fidelity because the second singer
wasn’t as adept at the diaphragmatic articulation as the first
one. This is definitely a minor quibble, when many ensembles have
singers with completely different vibrato and vocal timbre.

Another aspect of baroque performance that BEMF is famous for
is the continuo. The flexibility of the large continuo forces was
part of the effectiveness of this performance — the movements
with smaller vocal forces used only chamber organ (Avi Stein) and viola da gamba (Erin Headley), whereas
the ones with all 14 singers singing added the rest of the continuo
group: two chitarroni (Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs), Baroque harp (Maxine Eilander), and double bass (Robert Nairn).

Speaking of echoes, that was one of the fascinating things to
watch in this performance. Most of the singers who had to echo
someone else just went offstage and sang from there, but the
cornetti stayed onstage, but the echoing player turned her back to
the audience, so that her playing sounded farther away while she
could still have eye contact with the rest of the ensemble.

Boston has seen a number of performances of the Vespers, and
there are numerous recordings. This one seemed fresh and
interesting in ways I wasn’t expecting.

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