Mezzo. Contralto. Kissing.

In Monteverdi’s 7th book of madrigals (first printed in Venice in 1619), there’s this little gem set for two alto voices, here sung by Monica Bacelli (we are currently having a bit of a Bacelli situation) and Sara Mingardo (we will never not have a Mingardo situation).

“Vorrei baciarti” amounts to “I would like to kiss you.”

I’ve got a bit of a history with this duet, which I first encountered more than twenty years ago in the throes of coming out, in those last vestiges of painful blindness and awareness alike, on an under-the-radar recording of Monteverdis Libro Settimo that did not raise suspicions among my parents.

Two women’s voices. Singing about kissing! To each other. – I distinctly remember how my ears burnt when I first heard this duet, and how there was suddenly a glimmer of representation, of a “me” I hadn’t even really accepted or come to know. Those were the days where CDs were shiny and bright and new and still could not be copied at home, so of course I did, like any other fledging dyke, carry home buckets of music from the librabry and then make carefully curated mix tapes as a means of dealing with all that anxiety puberty brings on.
And I had one “queer” mix tape, one with  the songs and arias that I could find that would allow for a queer reading. I have forgotten many of the contents now, spoiled by years of easy access to music and by years of being comfortably out, but I still remember “Sie kam zum Schloss gegangen” in the Zemlinksy setting sung by Anne Sofie von Otter, and I remember “Vorrei baciarti”.

It’s a setting of a Marino text – just the kind of overflowing and angsty Early Modern court literature every nerdsbian-in-training will be able to identify with – debating whether where to kiss first, eyes or lips (answer: Both. Both are good. But also: lips.) –

Vorrei baciarti, o Filli,
ma non so come, ove il mio bacio scocchi,
ne la bocca o negli occhi.
Cedan le labbra a voi, lumi divini,
fidi specchi del core,
vive stelle d’amore.
Ah pur mi volgo a voi, perle e rubini,
tesoro di bellezza,
fontana di dolcezza,
bocca, onor del bel viso:
nasce il pianto da lor, tu m’apri il riso.

[I wish to kiss you, oh Phyllis,
but I don’t know how, where to place my kiss,
on the lips or on the eyes.
The lips give way to you, divine lights,
true mirrors of the heart,
living stars of love.
But yet I turn to you, pearls and rubies,
treasure of beauty,
fountain of sweetness,
mouth, glory of the beautiful face:
from them crying is born, you open up for me in a smile.]

In a day and age where the youngsters have representation in TV series and celesbians available at a mouseclick, and on their smartphone screens at a mere swipe of a fingertip, it may be hard to understand how a duet that sang of something – the song is clerly addressed to a woman, Phyllis, in the Arcadian pastoral fashion of the day – for which there were few images and very few movies that did not end in desolate death, could mean so much: Hope. Recognition. Joy. The idea of being able to kiss a woman, and to sing of it and only worry about eyes and lips and rhyme, being swept away by the sensuousness of it, and not worry about rejection because of one’s own voice being that of a woman, too.

That said, I don’t think I will ever hear a voice, see a pair of lips, segue into “perle, perle rubine” without missing a beat (you get to keep the L Word if you let me keep this!). If I had been able to hear Bacelli/Mingardo back then, I might have come to accept certain things sooner. Or I possibly would have stroked out. — This version is available on Mingardo’s solo recital, “Arie, madrigali & cantate”, which any self-respecting contralto lover with a penchant for Early Music should own, for “Or ch’è tempo di dormire” alone.

Added bonus to close this entry (thanks to tha dieu for pointing it out to me!): Bacelli and Mingardo in “Son nata a lagrimar” from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” – you may be moved to the tears that are sung about, but only because it is so good it makes you weep.

PS. I think I am figuring out an additional aural cause for my Bacelli situation with the Handel duet: she shades her vibrato, paticularly her “e”s, in a way that is similar to Catherine Naglestad in sound (and we all know that I am not to be held responsible where Naglestad is concerned).

PPS. I don’t even know whether to tag this skirts or pants, so I’ll just take both – take from it whatever you(r) desire.

8 thoughts on “Mezzo. Contralto. Kissing.”

  1. What a lovely post! Don’t the lyrics bring you to mind of of Juana Inéz de la Cruz’s poetry? – they do me. Oh what a quandary – should I kiss you on your eyes or your mouth! Baroque poetry has such an irresistible admixture of depth and charm and usually with a sharp glint of intelligent thought as well. All that back and forth and point counterpoint in weighing the merits and demerits of a decision or a position or in this case the puzzlement of where to place a kiss. I think the Italian makes it clear that the final decision was made in favor of the mouth. In the first part, the eyes were asked to defer to the lips, and in the second part they were told why they should – it is because tears are born from the eyes, whereas the lips part in a smile (perhaps more?) for Phyllis’ admirer.
    For me, at least, the blossoming of lesbian awareness in us is always poignant and bitter-sweet to read about, and this revelation about the beginning of your personal journey is particularly touching.
    I wonder why the person who wrote the lyrics chose ‘ove’ over ‘dove’.
    As for Nagelstad – who can forget her Alcina – and one scene in particular – ‘Ah mio cor’ indeed!

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    1. It’s good to see you, inkbrain!
      I wish I were more of an expert on Juana Inéz de la Cruz to be able to compare with the Marino; I don’t trust myself to compare. Will study more!
      I’m not an Italian scholar (the translation of the last line turned out a little rough), but yes, lips!
      And the ove is, as far as I know, a fairly common early modern usage of dove?

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  2. More random thoughts.…
    Maybe “come, ove il mio bacio” is easier to sing because no rude consonant interrupts the flow of open sounds….
    Mezzo and contralto (so rarely heard) beautifully express the conflicting choices – eyes or lips?
    The modulation in the second part indicates the question has yielded an answer.
    I thought of Juana Inéz because she too addresses such ‘this or that’ poems to Phyllis.
    I can’t adequately express just how beautiful these voices sounded – thank you for the post.
    Now I’m going to be a fool and try my hand at a translation!

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    1. Your translation will most certainly not be foolish!

      You are right, there is so much literature for two sopranos (just take the Settimo Libro alone!), but not nearly enough for two contraltos / lower female voices.

      In between Marino and Sister inéz, Phyllis sure was a lucky woman. 😉 The “ove” is now generally catalogied as older, poetic usage – but there is something to be said about the line of vowels. It mever ceases to amazoe me how in renaissance endecasillabo, the Italian writers manage to fit so many words to rhythm – all thank so to meshing the vowels into each other. I admit I have to read it out loud much of the time to figure out where the beats go.

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  3. i can’t believe i’ve been listening to this duet (have on phone) for the last year without knowing the translation.. reading this while hearing their voices in my head.. and i missed my train exit.. many many thanks for the post Anik! (now i understand why you *warned* me about (addiction to) this duet earlier…)

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    1. Sorry about the train exit! And people say music isn’t dangerous… 😉

      This recording is probably my favorite not just because of the singers, but because how they (and Alessandrini) take it very much in style in regards to tempo and embellishment. If you look at the score (it’s online via IMSLP – http://javanese.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/3/3e/IMSLP282587-PMLP82379-Madrigali_Libro_7_1619.pdf), it looks pretty straightforward, but it’s what they make of it! Take e.g. p. 54, top line, the way Bacelli does a long decrescendo to illustrate “Cedan” (to fall/give way), or p. 55, the solo phrase the bottom noted contralto (in this case Bacelli) has on “perle, perle rubine” (line two, then again at the jump of the last two lines), and how Bacelli adds this perfectly maddening rubato on the second “perle”, drawing everything to a breathless little almost-halt (which is the memorable pull I mentioned in the post). So well done!

      This is piece is so Baroque in the best sense of the word anyway: so much layered meaning in the sparring and mingling of the voices. I could probably go on about this all day!

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