He found a way to combine the techniques he had evolved in writing madrigals, four- or five-minute pieces, with what he learned from the new music of the Florentine Camerata, the earliest experiments in opera. And what Monteverdi does better than anybody of his generation is to maintain the musical interest. It’s not just an academic exercise. It has this humanity, which is so appealing and to me very Shakespearean.
And how have your thoughts and feelings about him changed since then, if at all?
I’ve grown to love and value him even more, because I just think his musical range and the journey he undertook is so intriguing. From “Orfeo” and the Vespers, works written in Mantua, through to “The Return of Ulysses” and “The Coronation of Poppea,” written for Venice, there is a big development. It becomes more melodious, and the Venetian operas, as they become public entertainments, have more dances.
I suppose the thing that strikes me most is the way that — again, going back to Shakespeare — he balances high life and low life. You get the gods, the courts, the aristocrats, and, in the case of “Poppea,” you get Nero’s imperial court. But then you get low life as well. You get the nurses, the handmaidens, the soldiers who grumble and complain about the political figures of the day. And that’s not just Shakespearean, it’s also to me very topical. I’ve had discussions about the idea of coming to the America of Donald Trump at the moment and performing these operas, which — there’s no question about it — have a kind of political resonance.
“Poppea” is so surprising, because you’re dealing with a manifestly corrupt series of individuals. Nobody is completely blameless from a moral or ethical point of view. Obviously Nero is totally self-serving and hysterical and politically corrupt and dangerous. And Poppea, his beloved, is a scheming minx. Wherever you look, it’s almost a journalistic view of the corruption of Roman society.
And yet the thing that plays with your mind, your values, your morals and civility is that, thanks to Monteverdi’s beguiling and wonderful music, you actually feel a sympathy and an empathy for Nero and Poppea. The final duet is so touching that you wish them well. And that’s ridiculous, because you know that it’s going to come to a terrible, sticky end. Everything is going to go wrong.
Speaking of that final duet, “Pur ti miro,” it is one of the most beautiful and poignant pieces ever written, but some scholars have questioned whether it was actually written by Monteverdi. What is your take?
I have no doubts at all that it’s by Monteverdi. The fact that it appears in an opera by Benedetto Ferrari or Francesco Sacrati simply suggests to me that Monteverdi was the guru. He was the maestro, and his colleagues of the younger generation came to him and said: “Listen, we’re doing an opera. Would you mind if we borrowed a piece of yours?” He was standing aloof from opera at the time, he was getting toward the end of his career, and I think he just loaned it out.
It’s also not surprising that bits of Francesco Cavalli crop up here and there in Monteverdi’s work. It’s no different from the Italian painters of the day with the young apprentices who surrounded them. Not all the great tableaus of Titian, Feronese or Caravaggio are necessarily 100 percent work of the original artist. It’s a workshop idea, and “Pur ti miro” is genuine Monteverdi.