By Lawrence Budmen

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) was one of music’s creative giants. Generally acknowledged as the father of modern opera, Monteverdi broke new ground in music drama. His Orfeo, Coronation of Poppea, and Return of Ulysses are still astounding in their direct, powerful dramatic utterance. This Italian genius changed liturgical music forever in 1610 with his Vespers of the Blessed Virgin. The genesis of the great sacred works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and even Verdi are found in this remarkable composition. If Monteverdi did not invent Baroque polyphony, he certainly took it to new heights in this singular masterpiece. The Vespers received its belated Florida premiere on October 7, 2005 at First United Methodist Church of Coral Gables, USA when Patrick Dupre Quigley conducted Seraphic Fire – Miami’s professional chamber choir – in a stunning recreation of the score’s early performances in the palaces and chapels of princes. 

Monteverdi lived on the cusp of the Renaissance and Baroque eras and his music effortlessly makes that artistic journey. Since the composer did not leave any instrumental score, artistic choices are very much in the conductor’s hands. In one of the score’s first significant recordings, the legendary Leopold Stokowski led a 70 piece orchestra and massive choruses. Such early music specialists as Christopher Hogwood and Martin Pearlman (of Boston Baroque) have offered versions with 20-30 voices and chamber orchestral forces.

In a pre-performance interview, Patrick Quigley referred to his edition as “the underground version.” Fielding a thirteen voice choir and only lute and organ for instrumental continuo, Quigley led a performance of tremendous vitality and authority. In just three seasons Quigley, a scrupulous Baroque stylist, has built a nimble, high precision ensemble. He has recruited first rate singers from across the United States for his ambitious projects. The musical results he achieves are world class.

Quigley turned the hushed opening Domine ad adjuvandum into a mystical exhortation. Chants and madrigal singing run through Monteverdi’s mesmerizing aural tapestry. The angelic sound of the female voices in the Dixit Dominus was magical. The rising soprano voices of the Laudate pueri were the sounds of heavenly exultation. The double choir madrigal of the Nisi Dominus alternated between joyous exhilaration and solemn reverence. 

Quigley substituted the Ricercar sopra Sancta Maria by Monteverdi’s contemporary Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) for the original movement which suggests additional instrumental voices. Frescobaldi’s gentle yet sonorous writing for male voices provided an interlude of utter tranquility. The beautiful singing of the Seraphic Fire male contingent offered one of those indelible musical moments – seemingly frozen in time.

The group’s outstanding solo voices were distinguished by idiomatic Baroque style and beauty of vocal utterance. Matthew Tresler’s appealing tenor had remarkable flexibility in the high register in an ornate Baroque aria with swirling lute accompaniment. In a duet for two sopranos Karen Neale’s stunning high, pure tones contrasted vividly with the darker sound of Mellissa Hughes. (In this extraordinary duo Monteverdi foreshadows Mozart’s operas and even the bel canto writing of Bellini.) Tenor Derek Chester tossed off roulades of coloratura in firm, secure tones. The dusky sound of mezzo-soprano Misty Bermudez and the agile, other worldly timbre of countertenor Ian Howell (of the renowned male vocal group Chanticleer) turned solo cameos into star turns. 

The sparse instrumental texture presented Monteverdi in his purest form. David Dolata provided elegant, beautifully integrated support on lute. Indeed he is a real virtuoso on that instrument. The superbly inventive organ continuo was masterfully played by Scott Allen Jarrett, one of Boston’s leading choral conductors.

The final Magnificat is the summation of a unique score. In alternating solo and choral passages both spiritual and invigorating, Seraphic Fire brought sounds of the heavens to a grandly sacred space. Quigley’s inspired leadership culminated in a finale that approached sublimity! An unforgettable performance of an uplifting, life changing masterpiece! 

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