A Baroque classic gets the MTV treatment.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Sept. 19 2003 7:53 PM

Monteverdi Goes MTV

Does a great Baroque composer need fancy sets and sleek dancers?

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For stage director Chen Shi-Zheng—in his youth a star in Madame Mao's opera company during the Cultural Revolution, now living and working in the West—Monteverdi's exaltation of the Virgin evokes images across cultures: the peasants in China who venerated their plastic-wrapped Virgins when they could be shot for having them; a photo of an Indonesian woman fleeing with a statue of the Virgin perched on her head; in Italy the kitsch Madonnas everywhere. Monteverdi wrote a love song to the Virgin, Chen says; this production is his love song to Monteverdi and to the Virgin, kitsch and otherwise—her little images are all over the set.

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For what Chen calls his "dance ritual" he brings together Javanese court dance, the Balinese Lagon style, and Chinese martial arts, and welds movements from those traditions into a unified style, splendidly performed by his dancers to the splendid playing of Llewellyn and his troops. The set is cloudy gray hangings, chorus and players to the back and sides. The principal dancer is male; at times Monteverdi's melismataseem to ripple across his back. Often the dancers float across the stage in mesmerizing slow motion; during joyful music their hands become butterflies and flames. Some of the most striking moments are made with the singers: a soprano in muted light, the music surging around her, declaiming over and over, "Holy Mary, pray for us!" as she slowly glides to the front of the stage. At the end, in glowing plastic columns that at once suggest kitsch Madonnas and a heavenly aura, three of the dancers are slowly drawn upward into the air, their hands tracing the stories in flowery movement of Balinese and Javanese tradition.

Chen Shi-Zheng has directed productions all over the world, the repertoire ranging from traditional Chinese to Wagner and Mozart. His success surely has much to do with his background in Chinese opera, giving him a powerful understanding of both drama and movement. There may well be nobody else who can do what he does. Chen and Llewellyn are dreaming of a cycle of all three Monteverdi operas plus the Vespers—their Monteverdi Ring Cycle, Llewellyn calls it. If they bring that off, it could do much for the careers of the society and the two directors, and no less of Monteverdi. Old Claudio belongs in the big league of Western composers. Handel and Haydn may be the outfit to put him there, once and for all.

Correction, Sept. 22, 2003: This article originally reported that the text of the "Pulchra es" was drawn from the Psalms. It was actually drawn from the Song of Songs. (Return to corrected sentence.)

Jan Swafford is a composer and writer. His books include Johannes Brahms: A Biography and Charles Ives: A Life With Music.