In order of appearance: Angela Cavalieri, Canzone – Music as Storytelling (installation view showing left to right: Combattimento, 2013, and Il ritorno, 2015); Canzone – Music as Storytelling (installation view showing left to right: Ragionando, 2015; Gira …, 2014; and Giro, 2015). Below: Ragionando, 2015, hand-printed linocut, acrylic on canvas, 212.5 x 150.5 cm; All images courtesy of the artist and NCCA.
Opera today is loved for its melodrama and the expressive scores that give life to its narratives. It is essentially musical storytelling and this is what interested Angela Cavalieri in her investigations into the music of Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), brought together in the exhibition Canzone – Music as Storytelling currently on display at the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in Darwin.
Monteverdi is often credited with creating the first opera, L’Orfeo in 1607, but this is incorrect. What he did do, however, was create the first great opera, which gave rise to the modern form as we know it today. Frequently hailed as the father of opera, Monteverdi changed opera by creating musical drama based on real people and historic events. He placed human emotions at the fore seeking a union between words and sound.
Monteverdi was an obvious choice when the Arts Centre in Melbourne commissioned Cavalieri to create a work about opera five years ago. Cavalieri has long been interested in the spoken word: the language of gossip; of love; of the tales we tell; of the things that we say and don’t say; of the things better left unsaid; of the words that can hurt or heal – and the magic of storytelling itself. Her recent foray into musical narrative, inspired by Monteverdi’s operas and madrigals, has enabled her to develop this further and draws upon her own experiences of her father singing stories to her as a child.
The Arts Centre commission was followed by a State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship from 2012 to 2013. This enabled Cavalieri to research more thoroughly the musical scores and original sixteenth century texts and the Italian poets that inspired Monteverdi.
In 2015 Cavalieri undertook a residency in Venice at La Scuola Internazionale di Grafica and this enabled her to explore the city where Monteverdi was based in the last decades of his life. One of the significant works to come out of this residency is Il Ritorno, 2015, based on Monteverdi’s opera Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria – the story of the return of Ulysses after the Trojan wars. Constructed as a double-arched bridge over the water that swirls beneath, it calls to mind the bridges of Venice and makes reference to the twin movements of departure and return. But it also powerfully underscores the way in which words fundamentally create bridges between people. Without language and the level of deep communication it allows, we would, in many ways, remain somewhat isolated from each other. It is through words that we connect together forming bonds that encompass a broad and nuanced range of emotions.
While some of her images can be seen as a more literal response to the music and the occasion of its performance, for instance Pur ti miro, pur ti godo, 2012, other images are more abstract in their treatment. An example is Ragionando, 2015, from Monteverdi’s Seventh Book of Madrigals. It is a response to the moment in the story when the two lovers kiss. They lament that while declaring their love they cannot kiss and while they kiss they cannot speak of their love – what joy if they could ‘kiss the words and to speak the kisses’. Cavalieri gives visual form to the dilemma entwining text in ribbons that interlace to create forms that have a roundedness vaguely reminiscent of pursed lips. Likewise Giro, 2015, is a play with the visual form of rounded sounds that repeat and pivot creating spirals.
Cavalieri has built an international reputation for her formidable lino-prints that give visual form to sounds, rhythms and tempos. This compelling exhibition allows us to enter into the music of Monteverdi and reflect upon the timeless narratives at the heart of his moving scores.
 Tom Ford, ‘Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo and the invention of opera,’ Limelight, August 2012. Accessed 5 April 2016.