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This passionate and erotically-charged performance brings Monteverdi’s beautiful music to dramatic life. © 2016 Read complete review

William E. Grim
Opera Today, August 2009

This film is a brilliant adaptation of Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals that is totally faithful to the composer’s music.

The development of opera in Italy is largely unthinkable without the madrigal. Although the madrigal was a highly sophisticated musico-poetic form featuring advanced harmonies and subtle texts of great literary value, it was, after all, a choral form meant for unstaged performance. Yet the dramatic power of the madrigal was such that monody—an early form of recitative—would eventually evolve from it. What director John la Bouchardière and the members of I Fagiolini have done is to demonstrate in a staged version the dramatic and rhetorical power of Monteverdi’s madrigals.

The Fourth Book of Madrigals for 6 voices (1603) is perhaps Monteverdi’s most famous book of madrigals because they were used by the composer to adumbrate the principles of the seconda prattica, that is, madrigals in which the composition of the music followed the lead of the rhetoric of the poetry. The Fourth Book is also notable for the high quality of the texts, consisting of poems by Giovanni Guarini (Il pastor fido) and Torquato Tasso among others. The 19 madrigals of the book share an emotional intensity expressive of the ebb and flow of a profound love. What the creators of this film have done is to pair each of the six singers with an actor and then to stage the performance as though it were six couples who coincidentally are having dinner at a contemporary restaurant. This allows each of the singers to have a dramatic foil, a person who is the object of the subjective text. This is a brilliant conceit and it works spectacularly well. What is even more remarkable is that this movie is a studio filming of the work that was originally performed live on stage. It is hard to imagine the concentration involved in performing highly chromatic madrigals with the performers not being in close proximity, and at time not even facing one other.

The film introduces a personalization of the intense emotional drama, alternating its focus among the various couples and even allowing for visual flashbacks as the music unfolds. Thus, we can be given the “back story” visually (for example, a past argument) as the couple in question grieves for a split up that is about to take place. Although they have no words to say, the task for the six actors is especially daunting as they must express the rhetorical and dramatic power of the madrigals utilizing only facial cues and body gestures and avoiding the overly melodramatic style of silent film acting.

Another aspect of this film that I found particularly satisfying is that a number of the madrigals are performed attacca [ie. without a break—Ed]. The elision of the performances of the madrigals heightens their poetic and dramatic unity, even when the texts of the madrigals are by different authors.

Madrigals of this sort were considered to be musica reservata, that is, music of extraordinary complexity and subtlety that was meant to be appreciated primarily by a highly educated and relatively small elite. As such, seconda prattica madrigals are often a tough go for the uninitiated and especially so for the typical college music appreciation student. This film makes explicit the drama that is inherent in the music and poetry and can, therefore, do a great deal to promote appreciation of Monteverdi’s madrigals.

The members of I Fagiolini sing with tremendous expressivity, flawless intonation, and amazing vocal technique. So convincing was their performance that it was not difficult at all to suspend disbelief at watching 21st century couples in a restaurant sing Italian madrigals while breaking up before the first course. This is a highly recommended DVD that should prove attractive to both opera lovers and early music devotees.

Adam Wasserman
Opera News, July 2008

The musical performances are simply beyond reproach. The members of I Fagiolini, who lip-sync to studio-recorded tracks, seem to have a preternatural ability for seamless blending in moments of tonal terra firma, as well as the transient modulations and virtuoso flights of fancy that make Monteverdi’s amorous evocations so vivid. The ironically feverish performance of “A un giro sol”—with its textual suggestions of placid nature coupled with ridiculously tricky vocal lines and dissonant coloratura—is stunningly rendered. Pieces such as “Volgea l’anima mia soavemente” and “Ah! dolente partita” are remarkable for the degree of dynamic control and the range of vocal colorings that the group imparts.

Ultimately, the musical rewards are obscured by a directorial conceit that imposes unnecessary dramatic stories onto characters that wither under such specificity; Monteverdi’s music remains affective precisely because of its universal beauty, but here it is demoted to the soundtrack of a lugubrious and prosaic mise-en-scène that seems more appropriate to a soap opera. The anguished couples all sit uneasily at their tables, exchanging portentous glances over candles and wine; they wail, cry and plead; they throw glasses of water and napkins and storm out of the restaurant. None of the other diners seem to notice, nor does any food ever actually get eaten; call it an empty feast.

J. F. Weber
Fanfare, July 2008

This is a remarkable way of realizing a book of madrigals that was never conceived to be heard this way. It’s highly successful, whether you watch with the English subtitles on or off. Not a word is spoken, for apart from ambient sound there is nothing to be heard but the singing, interrupted only by the briefest of pauses. The emotional expression on all the faces is convincing, an aspect that could easily have spoiled the effect. Repeated viewing will certainly reveal overlooked details, as the viewer becomes familiar with the dozen personalities that pop up in succession with some rapidity. Remember, six amorous breakups are unfolding simultaneously, the emotions and meanings of the madrigals applying equally to all of them. The production was made jointly for five national television systems and Naxos, and it has been broadcast since last autumn. This is a remarkably original conception, carried out with astonishing success. I have never realized the meaning of a set of madrigals as clearly as I did here. © 2008 Fanfare Read complete review

American Record Guide, May 2008

Fantastic! I wish the word “brilliant” had not been so overused, so that I could summon it to praise this film. And, yes, “film” is the right word. John La Bouchardière, a noted opera director, has created this film (“The Full Monteverdi”) that winds in with the words and music of Monteverdi’s wonderful madrigals the way that they intertwine with each other—and the result is superlative.

Composers have worked for centuries to marry words and music so that each will strengthen the effect of the other. If music is a mind-and-emotion altering process (which it undoubtedly is and is intended to be), words, which affect a different part of the brain, can amplify the effects of the music, which itself amplifies the effects of the words. Listen to how a few lines that seem trite and dry on a written page can evoke tears when set to music.

The visual world is a third element, often the hardest one to handle. Wagner wanted to create a unified world of art where music, words, and visual spectacle united to take his audiences outside of their everyday selves and into an experience that combined theater and ritual. His vision has not yet been fully realized in the theater, though maybe film will make it happen someday. This film helps me to understand how the dreams of Wagner, and of others, for such a unified experience could finally come to pass.

La Bouchardière has taken Monteverdi’s madrigals, a collection showing him at the peak of his mastery, the spectacularly good I Fagiolini (an ensemble whose first Monteverdi release I was lucky enough to review for ARG many years ago), and a story.

A story? Well, here’s how that works. If you string together 19 pieces about the pain and sorrow of love and loss and look carefully at them, you can find some threads connecting them. La Bouchardière seems to have asked himself what story could be illustrated by these madrigals, and, like magic (or magic and a lot of hard work), it emerged. We open in a restaurant where the six singers are paired with six actors to whom they sing the words of the madrigal. And so it plays out for the next hour. Instead of abstract music and poetry about sorrowful love, we see six attractive couples’ relationships dissolving in scenes of longing, betrayal, loss, anger, and hurt. It all ends up back in the same restaurant, with cool day replacing elegant evening and the six singers without their actor mates, singing the last madrigal in the collection, Tasso’s lines about the woman who lost her love and carved his name and her misfortunes on the bark of a tree, weeping as she read and re-read what she had written.

The musical component here could compete with the best recordings made, but there is no competition for what this is: a stroke of genius that defines a genre, something that sets a standard for what can be done. This is a way to open the treasures of this great music to our literal-minded and lazy age. Like the Beethoven description of one of his sonatas as for amateurs and connoisseurs, this is a production that can reach everyone willing to watch and listen. Those who already know and love this music will get new insights into it from La Bouchardière’s staging—why is this one a quarrel? why is there a baby in that one?—while newcomers will be carried along by the acting (great from all concerned), the drama, the settings, and the underlying stories as they follow the words with the unobtrusive subtitles (yes, you can turn them off) and let the music play on their hearts.

I haven’t gone into the specifics of the realization of the individual madrigals because I don’t think that there’s much point to that. The overall story of the sorrow of the unwinding, or sudden rupture, of the bonds between people and the pain that follows is the point—and a point beautifully made.

As is the norm these days, the soundtrack was recorded separately and the singers lip sync for the camera, but they do it in a way that is not obtrusive or jarringly inconsistent with the human interactions acted out before you. The singers are as communicative with their bodies as the actors, and everyone looks good and interesting.

I heard something that sounded like hiss or ambient noise in the soundtrack. I don’t know what caused that, but it was very minor and not distracting. There is a fine booklet with essays on the production, notes on the performers, and texts and translations.

If you love Monteverdi, get this. If you think you might like his music, get it. If you’ve tried to listen to Monteverdi, but haven’t quite managed to get into it, get it. If you’ve never heard Monteverdi, get it.

Memo to Naxos, La Bouchardière, and Fagiolini: there are seven other books of Monteverdi madrigals sitting there, waiting for you. Get to work!

Edward Lewis, April 2008

This remarkable, intricately constructed film is aesthetically beautiful in every aspect: masterfully shot, sensitively arranged images, utterly glorious singing, impressive operatic acting, and a terrifyingly involving narrative flow. This encounter between yesterday’s music and today’s medium can’t help but deliver Monteverdi’s masterpieces to a new and deeply appreciative audience in a thoroughly spectacular fashion.

Gerhard Persché
Fono Forum, April 2008

La Bouchardi¬≠re’s concept finds its ideal realisation in film. Brilliant.

Movies Unlimited, April 2008

…uniquely powerful.

Graeme Kay
Choir & Organ, April 2008

…the film’s raw impact comes from its unflinching exposure of the effects on flawed, vulnerable human beings of these devastating emotional rifts. Harrowing and haunting, the images uncover the naked truths of the madrigal poets…I Fagiolini’s musical performances are peerless.

Jason Buchanan, April 2008


Philippe Venturini
Le Monde de la Musique, April 2008

The eye cannot tear itself away from these admirably constructed images and subtle glances…The tour de force of this film is to have given a dramatic coherence and dramatic tension to twenty madrigals, surely the most unlikely cinematic material. The universal theme of separation is ripe for a contemporary reading but it takes La Bouchardière’s talent, leaning towards cinéma vérité, the typically British standard of I Fagiolini’s performances and the musicianship of the whole team to convince and captivate. Fascinating.

Andrew Benson-Wilson
Early Music Review, April 2008

Staggeringly inventive…the tricky job now is to ensure that this important film is made available on a mainstream TV channel at a sensible time of day.

Andrew Stewart
Early Music Review, April 2008

[La] Bouchardière’s verité-style direction, reminiscent of Kieslowski in its bold opening silence and unrelenting in emotional delivery, has the makings of an award winner.

Richard Lawrence
Classic FM, April 2008

This brilliant film…sung with consummate artistry…The passion in the music is tellingly matched by the suffering on the faces of the characters. The film demands to be seen; but I won’t be visiting that restaurant in a hurry.

Richard Lawrence
Gramophone, April 2008

Breaking up to Monteverdi…superbly acted, beautifully sung

The first thing to say about this brilliant film is that it is extremely well sung. It became the fashion, a few years ago, to praise a group like Concerto Italiano at the expense of English rivals on account of the former’s supposedly superior dramatic gifts. It wasn’t fair on ensembles like The Consort of Musicke; so, to redress the balance, let’s be clear that the soundtrack here is as stirring and passionate as anything from Italy or Spain.

The second thing is that you need to be in pretty good emotional shape in order to enjoy, or perhaps I should say survive, the experience of watching it. For what John La Bouchardière has done is to use Monteverdi’s Fourth Book of Madrigals as the vehicle for tracing the break-up in the relationships of six couples. The setting is a brick-walled restaurant where the couples meet, argue and suffer. Not much eating takes place, it must be said. The action opens out from time to time—to a kitchen, a bedroom, a park—but it ends as it began, in the restaurant.

Each couple consists of a singer and an actor. The singers are miming to a recording, the synchronisation absolutely spot-on. The actors are silent, of course, but the camera lovingly—if that is the word—focuses on their reactions. It also records the expressions of the singers; and not the least impressive feature of the film is the quality of the acting that La Bouchardière has elicited from the members of I Fagiolini. In particular, the desolation on the face of Anna Brookes and the torment undergone by Matthew Brook are almost unbearably moving. Bravos all round.

Svet Atanasov
DVD Talk, April 2008

…truly redefines what is and could be considered cinema.

Giv Cornfield
The New Recordings, Cliffs Classics, February 2008

Infidelity, jealousy, rivalry and domestic violence are some of the numerous emotions that almost crowd our poor old-fashioned love, which Monteverdi’s madrigals are all about. Granted, it is not easy to create a commercially attractive film about a group of vocalists—even of soloist calibre—singing madrigals. Yet, I would have preferred a cloister-type, classically authentic setting and acoustic environment to the artificial restaurant setting we have here.

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