Her name was Anna Guarini and she was an Italian virtuoso singer. In 1598, her husband murdered her with the help of her own brother. They woke her from her sleep and killed her with a hatchet because the husband who never loved her accused her of loving another man.
If subjugated in death, Anna Guarini’s life tells a different story. During her lifetime, she was a member of the all-women ensemble known as the Concerto delle Donne. Through their voices not only did these women achieve fame throughout Italy, but their singing provided them with an outlet for something preciously rare, and damningly fleeting even for women of their standing: independence. Yet Guarini, and the Concerto delle Donne have now gone forgotten by most. As is often the case for famous women, it was death that marked the beginning of Guarini’s anonymity. As her husband saved his honour, so he cancelled her legacy, one hatchet strike at a time.
The Korrigan Consort’s The Gentlewomen rewrites the musical legacy of the Italian Renaissance and does so convincingly. The music drama follows the lives of Lucrezia d’Este and Laura Peverara, two close friends of Guarini, in the aftermath of her murder, as they come to terms with the place of womanhood in a society where being a woman is synonymous with negation: negation of independence, negation of legacy. Featuring music by Barabara Strozzi, another forgotten giant of the Italian baroque (she was, in her lifetime, the composer with the most music in print), and Cesarina Ricci’s hitherto unperformed Il primo libro di Madrigali, The Gentlewomen is a meditation on women’s place in the Renaissance as much as it is a comment on the historical legacy of women.
It is indeed music which reigns supreme in this exciting new project. Accompanied by a Renaissance string quartet (violin, viola, Cello and lute), the voices unite technical proficiency with pathetic ability. Rosalind Dobson takes the centre stage in the role of Lucrezia d’Este, and movingly portrays a woman battling between her own vulnerability and the need to overcome it. In the chorus, it is the voice of Austin Haynes which shines through the polyphonic pieces without ever being overbearing. The performance follows Renaissance tradition, and dress, hair and makeup have all been meticulously researched.
Yet the close attention at historical accuracy results in a staging which, if admirable in its diligence, is perhaps a little stale. Although the final scene, which blends spoken word with musical interlude, is theatrically striking, I left the performance with a feeling that the pathetic potential of the story had not been fully exploited. The short monologues did outline a story, yet ultimately failed to bring the characters to life in the same way that the music succeeded. In any case, the relatively discreet staging confirms the Gentlewomen as a performance which is first and foremost of musical merit. While the Gentlewomen ultimately falls short of theatricality, it is a fiercely relevant performance which should be praised, if only for its service to the history of classical music.