A feast for the eyes and ears




Les Arts Florissants

Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall


This year marks the 450th anniversary of the birth of composer Claudio Monteverdi.

By way of celebration, the French early music ensemble, Les Arts Florissants, have been touring the world performing selected numbers from the 161 madrigals Monteverdi wrote over four centuries ago. This week, their bandwagon has landed in Singapore.

As bandwagons go, Les Arts Florissants' is quite small - just six singers, a pair of archlutes and a harpsichordist. But it proved to be the perfect size to capture the essence of these matchless musical miniatures.

They caught the enticing intimacy of those madrigals concerned with erotic thoughts and dreams of loving caresses, yet they also conveyed the powerful drama behind those which told of spurned women left to their fate at the claws and jaws of wild animals, and the tumults and terrors of the high seas.

Paul Agnew, the Scottish-born director of Les Arts Florissants, introduced each section of the concert by putting each madrigal in its historic context. Not content with that, his extensive essay in the generous programme book described Monteverdi's Madrigals as being a watershed in musical history.

These works changed forever the concept of music, taking it from the formal and rule-driven to the dramatic, colourful and story-driven, and paving the way for the birth of that greatest of all art forms, opera.

To know the history is one thing; to have it revealed in quite such vivid detail through stunning performances is something altogether different. And this concert was, for many, a revelation in bringing to life a musical genre which we in Singapore have rarely, if ever, experienced in such concentrated form before.

These were truly astounding performances. Rich in drama and colour - indeed, at times, it seemed as if Agnew was goading his fellow- singers on to levels of dramatic delivery which came dangerously close to parody - but impeccably balanced, controlled, phrased and expressed.

The range of colour, the clarity of diction, the vivid expressiveness of these six singers was little short of miraculous. And it was all wonderfully enhanced by the evident sense of commitment, enjoyment and, most of all, sheer fun, that all nine musicians on stage conveyed.

Fluently choreographed, the performance was one of those rare examples in classical music where the visual element did enhance the aural element. Supported by discreet lighting and well-coordinated back-screen projections of the text, this was every bit as much a feast for the eyes as for the ears.

When cat-calls, enthusiastic clapping and a smattering of standing ovators convinced the performers that the audience genuinely wanted more, they decided to sing one of the madrigals again.

As Agnew put it, "to show you it really is as astonishing as it sounded first time around".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 01, 2017, with the headline 'A feast for the eyes and ears'. Print Edition | Subscribe