A raunchy Beyoncé video blaring from a tiny bar’s TV might seem an unlikely backdrop for an earnest discussion on the intricacies of reconstructing music from 400 years ago – but this is Venice, where sex and melody have always been close, and the composer we are talking about is Claudio Monteverdi. The first composer to break through convention and display the true nature of humanity, he will be celebrated around the world this year, the 450th anniversary of his birth.
Sipping his Spritz under the glaring screen is today’s manifestation of Monteverdi – Marco Gemmani, maestro di cappella of the basilica of San Marco, the job Monteverdi held from 1613 until his death in 1643. We had stopped for a drink after he had given a rare tour of the singing galleries of the great basilica, a manifestation of the meeting of east and west. A Byzantine glory, it is covered in ancient mosaics and floored in dazzling Cosmati marble, and is as much a symbol of Venice as bobbing gondolas and creepy carnival masks.
Naturally, Gemmani and his choir still perform the music of his illustrious predecessor from the same galleries, high up amid the tesserae, but, he said, “We think about 70% of the music he wrote for the basilica is lost.” As he explained later, he has discovered the bare bones of a mass – the basso continuo and two violin parts, which he is reconstructing for the Feast of the Assumption and will perform as part of the year of sumptuous music-making in Venice.
The highlight will be at Teatro La Fenice in June, when Sir John Eliot Gardiner and his Monteverdi Choir perform three of the operas – L’Orfeo, Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and L’incoronazione di Poppea. As Sir John Eliot remarks, Poppea is hardly a piece you might expect to come from the pen of a composer who became a priest in later life. “His Poppea is a minx, an amoral strumpet who stops at nothing in pursuit of her ambitions; but she is also a sympathetic anti-heroine who charms us and reduces us to a pulp, thanks to the beguiling music Monteverdi assigns to her.
“By performing the trilogy in consecutive performances we hope to take audiences on a voyage – from the pastoral world to the court and the city, from myth to political history, from innocence to corruption, from a portrait of a man subject to the whim of the gods [Orfeo], to a hero imprisoned by his human condition [Ulysses], and finally to a dual portrait of mad lovers [Nero and Poppea], uncontrolled in their ambition and lust.”
That’s a voyage audiences may embark on much closer to home, when the trilogy opens in Bristol’s Colston Hall on Wednesday, returning in May, all part of a world tour that takes in the Salzburg, Edinburgh and Lucerne festivals, Berlin’s Musikfest and appearances in Paris, Chicago and New York.
But it is perhaps in Venice where it would be most rewarding to hear the work of a man who moved music out of the Renaissance into the Baroque, as much a revolutionary in his own artform as his contemporaries Shakespeare, Galileo, Cervantes, Caravaggio and Rubens were in theirs. Yes, Venice is overcrowded and expensive, but it is possible with care to enjoy the sights and the music without breaking the bank. Or you can tax your overdraft and go for some truly high-end accommodation. I was staying at the San Clemente Palace. Set on its own island in the lagoon it is a luxurious, peaceful haven, just a complimentary speedboat ride away from the bustle of the city.
You might start your own personal Monteverdi pilgrimage with a visit to his simple tomb in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari. Strewn with white roses it lies beneath a serene altarpiece (St Ambrogio enthroned with saints) depicting two lutenists who appear to be serenading the maestro on his journey towards a heavenly rest.
Much of his music was performed at the Scuola Grande San Rocco, an extraordinary charitable institution, still running today, that has remained unchanged since Monteverdi’s time. His popular motet Beatus Vir was among several works to receive their first performances in the sala superiore, a glorious venue that has attracted composers ever since. It is lined with spectacular Tintorettos, restored in the 1970s with the help of the Venice in Peril appeal, led by Britain’s former ambassador to Italy, Sir Ashley Clark. When he died in 1994, a grateful Venice had his ashes rowed down the length of the Grand Canal and across the fogbound lagoon to the funerary island of San Michele. Grazie mille, signore.
Jump on a vaporetto and head across the water opposite the Doge’s Palace where rises the imposing Palladian facade of the church of San Giorgio, completed in 1610. Three years later, Monteverdi used the building to rehearse for the audition that landed him the San Marco job.
And here’s a tip. Spoil yourself and have a drink in the bar at the Danieli. This ancient palazzo has been a top Venice hotel since the 19th century but as you sip your Bellini you can visualise the busy preparations going on for the first performances of three of Monteverdi’s operas that took place here.
Way to go
Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s Monteverdi 450 tour is at Bristol on 12 April and 8 and 28 May; Venice, 16-21 June; Salzburg, 26-29 July; Edinburgh, 14-17 August; Lucerne, 22-26 August; Berlin, 2-5 September; Paris, 16-18 September; Chicago, 12-15 October; New York, 18-21 October. The San Clemente Palace Hotel, Venice, is offering packages starting at ?1,800 for two nights, dinner and opera tickets