While his great contemporary, Shakespeare, was approaching the end of his career, Claudio Monteverdi published the epochal collection "Vespro della Beata Vergine." But even the term “collection” is a loaded one when it comes to this music. Did Monteverdi intend to produce an anthology or a unified score suitable for actual performance as a Vespers service? And if the latter, why does he interpolate motets filled with the sensual, erotic imagery of "The Song of Songs" into the conventional sequence of texts that would be appropriate for a Vespers service directed to the Virgin Mary?
There are so many unresolved questions about this monumental work, also known as the "1610 Vespers," that it lives a parallel existence on the dissecting table of musicologists, a topic for endless speculation.
But the interpretation led by Stephen Stubbs last weekend at Seattle's St. James Cathedral left no question as to the power of Monteverdi’s masterpiece to thrill, delight, and move contemporary audiences. Artistic director of Seattle-based Pacific Musicworks and a longtime star in the early-music scene, Stubbs conducted two performances as part of the Early Music Guild’s season, with participation by an array of international soloists, members of Seattle Baroque Orchestra, and the visiting Concerto Palatino.
Stubbs has already led two memorable Monteverdi productions in Seattle since founding his Pacific Musicworks initiative in 2009: "Il Ritorno d’Ulisse" and the scenic “madrigal” "Il Combattimento di Tancredi et Clorinda." In 2002 he recorded the Vespers with the ensemble Tragicomedia. Stubbs, who has a long history of conducting and (as lutenist) performing Monteverdi’s music throughout Europe, returned to his native Seattle a few years ago, where he recently launched a new program of early music at Cornish College of the Arts.
This weekend’s performances were meant to honor the 400th anniversary of the Vespers, which the composer arranged to be printed in Venice in 1610 (alongside a complete Mass setting). The choice of St. James Cathedral for the performance space was savvy — not only for the ambience of the setting but for the inventive exploitation of its acoustic richness.
Stubbs is an advocate of Joshua Rifkin’s paradigm-shifting hypothesis that Bach’s great choral works were originally performed not by large ensembles, with several singers for each vocal line, but with one voice per part (OVPP). Stubbs applied this idea to Monteverdi, realizing the vocal component of the Vespers with a total of nine solo singers. Although not quite as much a matter of consensus as Stubbs implies in his program notes, the OVPP approach suffered from none of the sonic anemia that sometimes results. However minimalist the vocal forces, the cathedral’s vivid acoustics provided a kind of illusionistic effect, blending the polychoral sections into sumptuous masses of sound.
In addition, Stubbs brought out a significant advantage of the OVVP model. His fine group of solo singers was like a cast of highly differentiated characters. Even in the larger ensembles of the psalm settings, something of their unique characters came through with a quirky specificity. It was a potent reminder that the smoothed-over, homogenized image of a piece of music, unmoored from its specific context, is a relatively recent invention.
If anything, Stubbs pushed his performers to the extreme other direction, particularly in the solo numbers. For example, “Duo Seraphim,” one of the four motets classified in Monteverdi’s score as a “concerto,” benefited from the striking contrast of its tenor voices, first as a duo and then joined by a third to symbolize the Trinity. So, too, in the “echo effects” that were neatly staged from various positions in the church. (The musicians operated from an L-shaped stage in the southeast portion of the central altar, which meant that half the audience was facing musicians' backs.)
Along with the mixture of texts, a remarkable range of styles is on display in the Vespers: elaborate Renaissance polyphony and “new style” melody, secular word-painting and sacred cantus firmus, instrumental interludes, and (in some performances) plainchant antiphons to introduce the psalm settings. (Stubbs opted to omit these antiphons, which would be more appropriate for an actual liturgical performance.)
This variety is reinforced by the way the vocal and instrumental textures shift continually between, and sometimes within, movements, particularly in the inspired hymn "Ave Maris Stella" and the "Magnificat," which concludes the Vespers. Stubbs often rearranged the positions of the singers on the altar for different sections. He also took up his long-necked lute, the chitarrone, so he could accompany in the intimate, madrigal-like numbers. The small orchestra of strings, harp, and organ continuo featured some of Seattle’s leading early music musicians. It was supplemented by the Concerto Palatino’s splendid ensemble of three sackbuts (proto-trombones) and two cornetti, who mirrored the virtuosity of the voices in glorious but tasteful ornamentation of their own.
As a conductor, Stubbs sometimes tended to box the flowing character of Monteverdi’s lines into more rigid patterns, but his approach wonderfully served the dramatic character of the music.
What emerged marvelously in Stubbs’s conception overall was the essential theatricality of the Vespers. From the joyful dance rhythms of praise and the sensuality of “Nigra sum” to the somber humility of the Magnificat’s “Et misericordia,” Monteverdi’s stylistic amplitude never sounded like a tug of war between sacred and secular idioms. The impression, instead, was of different scenes from a lively, all-encompassing mystery play.
Score another triumph for Stubbs, Pacific Musicworks, and the Early Music Guild.