What can one do? What can be said?
In the face of a pitiless heaven, in the face of disaster in love, what can one do? What can be said?
Those are not my words or feelings (or at least, not right this minute, though I have had my moments) but the two questions that haunt a beautiful, passionate song by Venetian composer Barbara Strozzi. I heard Che si può fare performed, live, last Friday at the Lumen Arts Centre in London. Soprano Philippa Neaverson was elegantly accompanied by expert lutenist Din Ghani, playing an instrument he himself made.
Since then, I’ve tracked down the song on youtube so as to hear it again – I’m still on a steep learning curve when it comes to Strozzi’s music – but the performances there, with fairly lush orchestration and what seems to me a bit of over-emphasis in the singing, do not match the simple effectiveness of the voice/lute combination, and, of course, could not match the sheer intimacy and intensity of a live performance. I spoke with Philippa afterwards who, by her own admission, is far from being a full-time professional singer. She had chosen Che si può fare in part because it fitted so well with the concert’s theme, Aspects of Love (Strozzi is very good at hopelessness) but also because, as she said, it makes fewer demands on the performer than some of Strozzi’s other works.
The aria is not actually representative of Strozzi’s last three collections of music, published in the later 1650s and then in 1664, which tend to be ever more sophisticated in conception and dramatic in execution. Che si può fare shows that simplicity in the hands of a vastly experienced composer can work its own magic. Strozzi sets the passionate, despairing lyrics over a relentless ground bass, the repetition seeming to embody the impossibility of escape from suffering.
You can find an image of the 1664 edition here http://imslp.org/wiki/Arie,_Op.8_%28Strozzi,_Barbara%29 and the full text of the lyrics here http://barbarastrozzi.blogspot.co.uk/2008/10/opus-8-texts.html. You can listen to the song on youtube here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCF4SFmIfmk but this is music to hear live, so…
Seek out Strozzi and if she is not to be found, demand her presence on the concert platform!