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Infinite refrain

Music of love's refuge
Randall Scotting (countertenor), Academy of Ancient Music, Laurence Cummings (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: November 2022
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Nicholas Parker
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: November 2023
Total duration: 66 minutes 45 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph by Joel Benjamin

Join Randall Scotting and Jorge Navarro Colorado as they cruise around the fascinating musical byways of a Venice which very much knew how to enjoy itself.

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Venice in the 15th century was anything but tolerant, a place where gay or bisexual men were burned at the stake, usually under the blanket charge of sodomy. With church and state invariably ruled by narrow-minded old men, East-facing Venice took a particularly Byzantine view of Christian orthodoxy to counter the prevalent idea that society—and young men in general—were going to wrack and ruin. Interestingly, the penalty was more severe for the dominant offender, leading to heart-breaking cases where one man might evade death by pleading that they were the passive partner. Of course, back then there was no sense of gay identity, making it difficult to know the sexual preferences and exclusivity of the men swept up by such draconian measures.

But then, everything changed. In 1605, the Venetian authorities arrested two priests accused of ‘common crimes’, to the chagrin of Pope Paul V who insisted that they came under church jurisdiction. Encouraged by Paolo Sarpi, Venice’s official theologian, Doge Leonardo Donà refused to hand them over, leading a furious pope to place the Republic under an ecclesiastical interdict. Forbidden to perform religious services, the Venetian clergy chose to side with the state, expelled hard-line Jesuits, and carried on as normal. With the separation of church and state, the autonomous Republic of Venice with its elected monarch became Europe’s shiniest example of a place where early Enlightenment concepts of alternative societies and social tolerance could take root.

These were the prevailing conditions when the writer and leading Venetian politician Giovanni Francesco Loredan founded the Accademia degli Incogniti (Academy of the Anonymous) in 1630. A stimulating mix of intellectual humanists, freethinking noblemen, and creative artists, the Incogniti included historians, poets, and crucially, opera librettists.

Many members were high-ranking officials who chose to publish anonymously—they even had a secret language—but others were more visible. They included Giacomo Badoaro, the librettist for Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria, and Giovanni Francesco Busenello, who wrote the libretti for L’incoronazione di Poppea and Cavalli’s La Didone. Giacinto Andrea Cicognini, author of Cavalli’s Giasone was a member, as was Aurelio Aureli who worked with Cavalli on his final (and unproduced) opera Eliogabalo. The poet Giulio Strozzi, adoptive father of the composer Barbara Strozzi, was one of the driving forces behind the opening in 1641 of the society’s very own theatre: the Teatro Novissimo.

Ironically, it was Venice’s decline as a trading powerhouse that led to its reputation as a magnet for gay tourism. The annual Carnival, with its frenzy of sexual licence and promise of anonymity, had always drawn the crowds, but with the downturn in commercial revenue, the authorities were increasingly inclined to turn a blind eye in exchange for a healthy injection of the 17th-century version of the pink pound. And so, something that had been swept under the carpet for over a century became something the Venetians could sell.

Carnival’s big drawcard was its masks. Concealment cut across class and gender with a tacit understanding that anonymity meant freedom from risk of prosecution. Indeed, identifying someone you thought you recognised was considered a social faux pas. Signalling your sexuality was seldom subtle. Men seeking sex with men often dressed as women and wore cat masks—the famous Gnaga mask—to make their preferences clear.

The influx of foreigners included those taking part in the Grand Tour, for whom Venice was increasingly seen as an essential stop. As word got home via letters and travel diaries, the Republic became a haven for gay men who had suffered persecution at home, a byword for broadmindedness (or simply a place that turned a blind eye).

Where tourism thrives, prostitution is seldom far away. For centuries, Venice had restricted the activities of female sex workers, confining them to the neighbourhood of the Carampane di Rialto. Effectively a state-endorsed brothel, it had its own castellan and even boasted a retirement home for elderly harlots. By the 16th century, however, male prostitutes were giving the women a run for their money, so much so that the city fathers felt the need to step in.

Worried that Venetian men were increasingly being tempted from the straight and narrow, the Doge allowed female prostitutes to display their breasts from balconies and windows near the Ponte delle Tette (literally the Bridge of Tits). By boosting trade, the authorities hoped the women might entice a gay man or two. Needless to say, it didn’t work, and by the time Lord Byron came to Venice in 1816, the city’s reputation as a place for gay encounters—often with working-class gondoliers—was unparalleled in Europe. Only with the rise of Mussolini did Venice lose its sheen as a playground for gay and bisexual men.

Carnival was a boom time for all kinds of entertainment, and with tourists flocking to town, it is not surprising that many of the period’s most successful operas were commissioned for the season. Of course, nowhere were masks, cross-dressing and sexual ambiguity more celebrated than in opera. With its reputation as a safe space for gay men and women, gender fluidity reigned unchallenged. The increasing popularity of the castrati—often considered gender neutral—meant that men who sounded like women could be found playing women who disguised themselves as men. This was especially true in the work of Cavalli whose La Calisto (1651) requires Jupiter, sung by a bass, to disguise himself as the goddess Diana in order to seduce the nymph Calisto. Conversely, male characters played by mezzo-sopranos inevitably came with the potential frisson of a lesbian relationship.

From the outset, classically educated audiences would have understood opera’s coded references to gay or bisexual relationships. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, for example, may end with Apollo gathering the hero up to heaven, but humanist readers would have been aware of an alternative ending. According to Ovid, after Eurydice’s death, Orpheus forswore women and transferred his affection to young men.

Similarly, in Ercole in Tebe, Hercules’ rescue of Theseus from his imprisonment in Hades would have carried same-sex connotations given Hercules’ mythical reputation for man-on-man intimacy (according to Plutarch, Hercules had at least six male lovers). Audiences watching Giovanni Antonio Boretti’s version of the opera would have smiled to see the two heroes singing a rapturous love duet as they emerge from the underworld hand-in-hand.

Flexing literary boundaries operated alongside innovations in music. As always, Monteverdi—a Venetian resident since 1613—was at the cutting edge. Published in 1619, his Seventh Book of Madrigals was a gamechanger. Taken back-to-back, its sequence of 32 heterogeneous compositions feels more like an opera in progress than a humble collection of part-songs. Solos and duos dominate, and at least two of them—designated ‘Lettere Amorose’ (Love Letters)—are described as ‘in genere rapresentativo’. Clearly the composer expected them to be presented theatrically as well as sung.

Structural freedom reaches its apogee here where the performer is challenged to sing ‘without a regular beat’. In the first, ‘Se i languidi miei sguardi’, the protagonist writes of a secret love and about being enslaved by his beloved (‘trust this letter, in which in the form of ink, my heart bled,’ he says). In the second, ‘Se pur destina e vole’, the writer is almost suicidal at being parted, but is consoled by faith in the beloved’s return. Written with an engrossing, yet sparsely scored inventiveness, they point to a newfound directness of utterance in representing drama through music.

Three settings of Giambattista Marino’s erotically charged ‘rime amorose’ anchor the program recorded here, which explores love between two men in all its infinite variety. With teasing elegance, the lovers in ‘Vorrei baciarti’ are unable to decide where to plant their kisses, on the lips or on the eyes. The playful ‘Perchè fuggi’ explores the potentially painful consequences of a kiss, while the effervescent ‘Tornate, o cari baci’ finds them hungry for more. Elsewhere, the gentle ‘Soave libertate’, with its prominent part for the deep-throated lirone, reflects on the pro and cons of being bound by ‘the beautiful chains of love’. With its double instrumental choirs, ‘Con che soavità’, reveals the singer torn between kissing his lover’s lips and listening to the beautiful words that come from them.

Combining recitative and arioso, the operatic excerpts recorded here are more lavishly scored. Although structurally conventional, the subject matter is frequently radical. Take Eliogabalo, Cavalli’s last opera. Commissioned for the 1668 Venice Carnival it was replaced at short notice by a version in which the notoriously dissolute Roman emperor repents in the final scene. The Augustan History claims that Elagabalus (Eliogabalo) married a male athlete, while Cassius Dio claims he wore makeup, insisted on being called a lady, and offered to reward any surgeon who could supply him with a vagina. These days he’s held up by some as an early trans figure. The aria ‘Misero, così va’ is sung by Eliogabolo’s cousin and successor Alessandro.

The virtuosic aria ‘Da torbido nembo’ from Ercole in Tebe introduces us to a fascinating musical family. Its composer Jacopo Melani was brother to Atto Melani, a famous Italian castrato. Mutilated as a boy along with two other brothers, Atto doubled as a diplomat and a spy, and there is convincing evidence that he had an affair with Duke Carlo II of Mantua. Both men, it seems, had sex with the same page at the court of Innsbruck.

The composer Giovanni Antonio Boretti, born in Rome in 1640, died in Venice at the age of 32, the day before the premiere of his final opera. It was Boretti’s version of Eliogabolo that replaced Cavalli’s in 1668, and he wrote his version of Ercole in Tebe for the 1670 Carnival. Pelio’s flowing lament, ‘Crudo Amor’, is followed by ‘Se per tè lieto mi lice’, the touching same-sex love duet for Ercole and Teseo.

Daniele da Castrovillari was a friar who died in Venice in 1678. Although he wrote three operas, he was better known as an organist. Marc Antonio’s aria, ‘Dove, m’ascondo’, from his 1662 opera La Cleopatra, finds the vulnerable hero wallowing in the downside of love: despair.

The composer Alessandro Stradella knew all about love: in 1682 he was murdered by three men in Genoa after he’d seduced their sister! ‘Oh quanti soli… Ahimè, gl’è meglio piangere’ from his 1679 opera Il trespolo tutore is an early example of the extended mad scene. In it, the lovesick, unhinged Nino swings in and out of a dizzying succession of arias, at one point imagining his sanity is being held prisoner on the moon.

The program features a handful of instrumental numbers, including the Fourth Toccata from Frescobaldi’s First Book for harpsichord and organ, and a corrente by Giovanni Legrenzi (printed in Venice in 1691). The Ballo detto Pollicio is by Tarquinio Merula, an almost certainly gay composer who suffered the fate of many in those days when authorities in Bergamo charged him with indecency.

The album ends with Venetian opera’s most famous love duet. Although Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea focuses on the emperor’s relationship with a Roman noblewoman, cultured audiences would have been well aware of Nero’s male relationships (Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio all mention marriages to freedmen). Hearing ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo’ sung by two men might have been less of a surprise to a 17th-century opera-goer than one might imagine.

Clive Paget © 2023

The first of its kind, this album of passionate duets and arias explores the nuances of gay love in the 17th century. Though often concealed or suppressed, the connection, doubts, joy, misery, laughter, longing, and elation existed, nonetheless. The seed from which this album grew was a desire to acknowledge and celebrate Venice as a place of unusual tolerance. The title, Infinite refrain – Music of love’s refuge, references a love that has always been and will continue to be, and the word refuge was chosen to spotlight Venice as a safe haven for love in greater Europe at a time of continual conflict and religious oppression. Conceived as the journey of two men in love, told through 17th-century music, this album draws back the curtain of religious absolutism that has obscured stories of gay romance for hundreds of years. While the music is nearly four centuries old, its focus on gay love resonates today with an unmistakable immediacy.

Some music on the programme will be recognisable, yet heard in a new way, like Monteverdi’s well-known duet ‘Pur ti miro, pur ti godo’ (Finally, I see you; finally, I enjoy you), performed here by two men. We also present Monteverdi’s two achingly beautiful lettere amorose (love letters); one letter carrying the hopes of an optimistic lover and the other a dire confession of someone pushed to the extreme when love feels unrequited. Solo arias by Cavalli and Stradella depict the yearning and madness of furtive or tormented love, while four pieces are newly discovered and recorded here for the first time. One of these arias that has never been heard by modern audiences is Castrovillari’s tragic ‘Dove, m’ascondo?’ (Where can I hide myself?), which portrays a powerful ruler who has lost everything. Another is the charming duet ‘Se per tè lieto mi lice’ (To be happy for you is precious to me), by the practically unknown composer Giovanni Antonio Boretti, in which the mythic lovers Hercules and Theseus pledge their devotion to each other while escaping Hades hand-in-hand. Amazingly, this duet portrays two of the greatest heroes of Greek antiquity matter-of-factly proclaiming their love for each other and it is offered here just as Venetian audiences would have heard it in 1670.

By 1650, Venice had already been notable for over a century for its freedom from religious fanaticism, with several accounts of outed or persecuted people finding sanctuary amongst its more permissive culture. As a bustling hub for shipping and commerce, Venice was a wealthy centre within Europe that embraced liberal views, and with its six-month long Carnival, it also offered a sexually tolerant atmosphere. While it was still possible to find yourself on the wrong side of the law for various types of indecency, so-called moral infractions were very often overlooked. Generally, the open arms of La Serenissima received and accepted love’s refugees who were seeking a place with less restriction.

Our recording aims to place the music of Monteverdi and his colleagues in its proper context, by removing the influence of oppressive religious and social disapproval which has distorted so many previous interpretations. Now, it is possible to perform and hear these pieces with a restored perspective that looks optimistically forward and imagines a future bright with possibility. Respecting the music as it would have originally been experienced, it seems the perfect time to share a history that is yet unsung and to honour gay love that has spanned the centuries.

Randall Scotting © 2023

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