The setting is the Middle East. Islamic forces are resisting an invading Western army in a conflict that has worn on for years. Under cover of night, an Islamist warrior steals out of the fortifications and sabotages a technologically advanced weapon with which the Western forces had hoped to achieve an advantage. The culprit is spotted and pursued by a Western soldier, and a furious fight to the death ensues. It ends at dawn, with the Muslim soldier bleeding to death but with ramifications the victorious Christian can scarcely grasp.
Sound like a scene from a new Clint Eastwood movie? It’s actually something considerably older — a critical moment in “Jerusalem Delivered ,” an epic poem about the First Crusade by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, published in 1581. The fortification is the walled city of Jerusalem, held by the Ottoman Turks. The advanced technology, a siege tower erected by the Frankish crusaders, is torched by a disguised Muslim warrior, killing the men inside. The Christian soldier who slays the arsonist is the knight Tancred. Both are clad in medieval armor, so neither knows the other’s identity. It is only when Tancred, flush with victory, lifts his opponent’s helmet that he realizes he has slain Clorinda, the Muslim woman he loves.
Claudio Monteverdi set Tasso’s story to music in a madrigal he titled “Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda,” or “The Duel of Tancred and Clorinda.” Unfolding in less than 20 minutes, this work was the centerpiece of an extremely satisfying program at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday by the NGA Vocal Ensemble and Chamber Players.
Soprano Rosa Lamoreaux, one of Washington’s most esteemed musicians, sang the role of Clorinda with dignity and pathos. Tenor Matthew Loyal Smith brought a pure, focused sound, along with agile embellishments, to the role of Tancred.
The madrigal’s heavy lifting is entrusted to a narrator, who must set the scene, describe the action and comment as a sort of poet-observer. All this was accomplished admirably by baritone David Newman with a blend of drama and precise delivery.
A continuo group led by Richard Stone on theorbo, with harpsichordist Steven Silverman and cellist Lori Barnet, formed the backbone of the instrumental ensemble that included violinists Leah Nelson and Nina Falk and violist Leslie Nero.
A madrigal by Monteverdi’s contemporary Antonio Cifra, charmingly sung by Lamoreaux and Smith, served as a prelude to “Il Combattimento.”
Two stimulating lectures set the tone of the program. Peter M. Lukehart of the National Gallery’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts discussed some of the art inspired by “Jerusalem Delivered,” and Laura Benedetti, chairwoman of Georgetown University’s Italian department, spoke about Tasso’s place in Italian literature.
Rucker is a freelance writer.