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Lady Gaga should take a leaf out of Monteverdi’s book – specifically, his books of madrigals. The 17th-century Italian composer knew how to make the human voice sound sexy and suggestive; all without the need for Auto-Tune.

The spiritual and sensual worlds sit comfortably side by side in Monteverdi’s eight books of a cappella vocal madrigals, but Song Company artistic director Roland Peelman has selected nine of the most explicitly amorous for the ensemble’s first tour of 2012, Love in Venice, which culminates in performances at the Melbourne Recital Centre (March 12) and Sydney’s City Recital Hall on March 14.

“Monteverdi is one the most inventive fearless composers ever,” says Peelman. “When dealing with erotically charged texts, he always manages to find a device that makes it more unexpectedly erotic or sensuous.”

Those devices include closely intertwined vocal interplay, luscious harmonies and deliciously languid dissonances in which the exquisite tortures of love find expression. Although the pieces are intimate and require only a handful of singers, Peelman insists that “this is music on a par with Wagner’s Liebestod; it is equally voluptuous, romantic and exalted. They really push the boundaries of our ears and our imagination.”

Among the madrigals designed to get the mistresses and courtesans of the Mantuan court hot and bothered is Eccomi pronta ai baci (Here I am, ready for kisses) from Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals, a trio setting of Giambattista Marino’s sonnet that revels in erotic play. The alluring Cinzia invites her suitor Ergasto to kiss her, but asks him not to mark her neck with a bite – essentially an invitation he cannot resist. But, as Peelman explains, there’s more going on in the music than randy nymphs and shepherds on course for a happy ending. “Monteverdi actually set this for three male voices, so you get the gender play to start with, and in the three voices the kissing and biting is everywhere. It’s very cheeky, funny even but above all very theatrical – exhibitionist in a subtle way.”

Peelman also cites the example of a madrigal in which a young woman sings longingly to a caged bird in voluptuous soprano duet: “A game of vocal seduction… The kind of thing that men really fall for!”

The lustful poetry Monteverdi set was bold for 16th- and 17th-century Italy, but appealed to “a distinct cult of the erotic” that was embraced with enthusiasm, particularly in Venice, with the rediscovery of antique culture – what Peelman neatly summarises as “gods and demi-gods rooting everything in sight”.

“Some of the poets got into trouble or were occasionally put on the Vatican’s blacklist”, he continues, “until they wrote a pious verse to expiate their youthful sins.”

To complement Monteverdi’s intensely pleasurable romps, Song Company perform a comic madrigal by his contemporary, the little-known Venetian composer Adriano Banchieri. The vocal ensemble join early music specialists Tommie Andersson (lute/theorbo) and Laura Vaughan (lirone/gamba) to present Banchieri’s 1623 madrigal comedy Barca di Venetia per Padova (A Boat from Venice to Padua), in which the singers adopt Commedia dell’Arte roles for a performance that could be described as 17th-century cabaret.

Peelman says that Banchieri’s comic masterpiece is rarely performed today. “Banchieri did not change the course of history – Monteverdi did. But both used the traditional madrigal form as a point of departure: Monterverdi by abandoning the original five-part form and experimenting with compositional method and style; Banchieri by imitating established madrigal composers to create a spoof.”

Above all, both the comedy madrigal and Monteverdi’s exquisite set of erotic songs require an ensemble with a sense of humour… Singers who aren’t afraid to show us their lovebites.

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