After twenty years of performing the riches of 17th-century music for two and three sopranos with my ensemble Tragicomedia in Europe, I found that this music served particularly well as material for use in workshops for young singers and continuo players. Returning to Seattle in 2006, I began working with Anna Mansbridge in a series of workshops in which Anna would spontaneously choreograph groups of singers in this music. It quickly dawned on me that a professional realization of this repertoire with dedicated singers and dancers, all brought to choreographic life by Anna could make for a very exciting encounter between 17th-century music and modern performance. Thinking through the impact that the three soprano concept has had on the operatic repertoire, from the cackling Wayward Sisters who appear as assistants to Purcell’s Sorceress in Dido and Aeneas, to the enigmatic Three Ladies in Mozart’s Magic Flute, our concept and our title were complete.
The idea of a group of three “singing ladies” may be a Platonic ideal residing deep in the human psyche to judge from cultural artifacts ranging from Egyptian wall paintings through Botticelli’s Muses and on to well known emanations in our own time including the Andrews Sisters and the Supremes. A particular focus on three women as a vocal performing unit was given by the Este court of Ferrara in the latter part of the 16th century where the music master Luzzasco Luzzaschi (1545-1607) composed music for a treasured, secret cappella of Lucrezia Bendidio, Tarquinia Molza and Laura Peverara, known far and wide as the Concerto delle Donne. Of course it was no secret that they existed and that their performances were breathtaking, but they were kept as a “musica segreta”, and the pleasure of hearing and seeing them was reserved for the lucky few esteemed worthy by the Este rulers. The development at this time of the arts (music, poetry, acting, dancing) as a professional career path for women has much to do with the emergence of the modern woman in Western history. For the first time, an occupation other than that of wife, nun or courtesan opened entirely new vistas of female accomplishment. Collectively the Italians called the new professional female artists “le cortegiane honeste”, and a wonderful legacy of music for their performance forms the bulk of tonight’s program.
For musical developments in the late sixteenth century, all roads lead to the dynastic wedding of Ferdinando di Medici and Christine of Lorraine in Florence in 1589. All the most prominent artists of Italy were brought together for the week-long festivities: composers, singers, writers, actors, designers, they constituted a “who’s who” of the contemporary Italian arts. The iconic composition of that celebration was known as the Ballo del Gran Duca – O che nuovo miracolo, by Emilio Cavalieri, an all-dancing all-singing spectacular prominently featuring a trio of singing/dancing sopranos.
Another North Italian court, Mantua, ruled by the Gonzagas, fostered some of the most important experiments in early opera under their resident genius, Claudio Monteverdi. His early masterpieces in the form were Orfeo in 1607 and Arianna in 1608. For the latter piece Monteverdi had been training the very young soprano Caterina Martinelli for the title role. While learning the role she fell victim to smallpox and died. She was hastily replaced by the actress Virginia Andreini from the prominent commedia dell-arte troupe
I Gelosi which had also performed in the Florentine festivities of 1589. From this opera all is lost except for the great Lamento d’Arianna which is one of the most seminal achievements of the early opera. In contrast to the lost score of Arianna, Orfeo was unusually well documented with a printed score overseen by Monteverdi and a printed libretto. There is, however, a mysterious discrepancy between the ending in the libretto (with the arrival of the enraged Baccante calling on Bacchus to lead them in revenge on Orfeo) and the ending in the score (with Apollo’s arrival and the apotheosis of both Orfeo and Euridice into heavenly constellations). For many years I had pondered setting this other final scene to music. When, in March 2020, all concerts and their associated travel came to a sudden halt, the first thing I thought to do with my newly found free time was to attempt this setting. These concerts are the premiere of this alternate ending.
Also working at the Mantuan court in Monteverdi’s time were a trio of singing sisters which included the famous Andreana Basile “La sirena di Posilipo” (Posilipo is a hillside neighborhood of Naples overlooking the bay). Andreana had two daughters while living in Mantua: Leonora in 1611 and Caterina in 1620. Both became singers, and in 1633 they took up residence with their mother in Rome where they became known as “Le Canterine Romane”. This remarkable ensemble was also known to accompany themselves on lute, harp, lira, viol, theorbo and guitar in various combinations. They inspired both directly and indirectly the greatest Roman composers of the time including Luigi Rossi, and the brothers Domenico and Virgilio Mazzocchi, to write a large body of ecstatic and sensuous music for three sopranos. The French musician and writer André Maugars visiting Rome in 1639 had the luck to see and hear this illustrious trio in the year before Andreana’s death:
This concert transported me into such ravishment, that I forgot my mortal condition and believed myself to be among the angels.
(André Maugars: Response faite à un curieus sur le sentiment de la musique d’Italie, Paris, 1640)
The final piece on our concert is from Luigi Rossi’s magnificent opera of 1647: L’Orfeo. Rossi was the most prominent Roman opera composer at this date, and was therefore chosen by the Barberini Pope and Cardinal Mazarini to export this prized Italian creation to France where L’Orfeo was first performed. This scene follows Euridice out into the meadow where she hopes to find other nymphs with whom to share an afternoon of dancing in the fields. Finding no one, she decides to take a nap. The Dryads (by strange co-incidence a trio of sopranos) arrive to sing her a lullaby. They then rouse her to a rollicking dance set to the Ciacona. All of the frolicking comes to an end when Euridice is bitten by a snake and dies.
Just as Anna has used elements of renaissance and baroque dance to create the unique and original choreographic language for this production, I was eager to see if something similar could be achieved in the creation of new music. I knew that Karen Thomas, besides being the accomplished director of Seattle Pro Musica, was also a composer. For our first performance of Wayward Sisters in 2013, I reached out to ask if she would write a new piece for the combination of three women’s voices and our continuo group of harp, lute and viola da gamba. I knew that this would require her to think in terms of writing for basso continuo (essentially a harmonic framework) rather than individual ‘parts’ for the instruments. Karen understood completely and created the wonderful Double heart which we debuted in 2013. It is a special treat to revisit it here, and to add my own contribution in the form of the scene from Monteverdi’s Orfeo. It may seem odd or confusing that a performance and an ensemble so deeply committed to “early music” would feature two new pieces on such a program. This reflects my deep conviction that a musical culture is at its most vibrant when performing musicians also feel empowered or even necessitated to create new music – whether by composition or improvisation. This idea of what it means to be a musician would have seemed obvious to every composer on this program from Monteverdi to Thomas.
Stephen Stubbs, 2022