Monteverdi in Venice

John Eliot Gardiner announces his year-long celebration of Monteverdi’s 450th anniversary. Oliver Condy reports from Venice.

Monteverdi in Venice

A very short boat ride away from the Venetian mainland – and tourist madness – lies the tiny island of San Giorgio (pictured above), home to architect Andrea Palladio's magnificent late 16th-century basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore and its adjacent monastery, now the Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

In the solitude and warm acoustics of the monastery's sizeable tapestry room (pictured below), a specially auditioned choir of professional early music singers and continuo players under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner are starting to rehearse Monteverdi's Hor che'l ciel e la terra from Book VIII of the madrigals, setting to music the beautiful 164th poem from Petrarch's Canzoniere.

It's an extraordinary sonnet, full of natural rhythm and linguistic contrasts, which Monteverdi feeds off in his inimitably colourful and dramatic fashion: sighing falls, harmonic clashes, breathtaking vocal scales… Gardiner encourages his singers to dig deep into their colour palette to reveal Monteverdi's astonishing inventiveness.

Digging turns out to be an appropriate word – as a Dorset farmer, Gardiner employs the odd agricultural metaphor. 'Your mouths are like compost heaps', he suggests at one point to the musicians' obvious amusement, the idea that Monteverdi's music and Petrarch's words benefit from constant vocal mulching to produce the fruitiest of late-Renaissance mulch.