The Italian early music vocal ensemble La Venexiana paid a visit to the Triangle on October 22, giving a recital in the Nelson Music Room on Duke’s East campus. The group does not take its name from an old or fanciful spelling of the city of Venice, as one might think, but rather from an anonymous Renaissance Italian comedy. Like the songs that the group presents, it provided commentary on all the various levels of society, albeit sometimes subtly and disguised, in various levels of language and dialect.

The touring ensemble was not the full personnel of the group, which has made a dozen recordings, several of them award winning, on a couple of different labels. Founder and Music Director Claudio Cavina, a countertenor, sang the alto parts and provided minimal conducting direction as well. The soprano was Valentina Coladonato. Tenors Sandro Naglia and Giuseppe Maletto and bass Matteo Bellotto rounded out vocal ensemble, and harpsichordist Andrea Perugi provided the accompaniment as well as a couple of solos by Girolamo Frescbaldi mid-way through each half. The artists arrayed themselves across the platform stage with the bass in the center, S A B T T, and the harpsichordist behind them.

A total of sixteen songs (including an encore) by a variety of composers, including the well known Luzzasco Luzzaschi, Sigismondo d’India, Claudio Monteverdi, and Carlo Gesualdo, and the lesser known Luca Marenzio and Giaches de Wert, were presented. For many, the accompaniment was minimal, so they were, for all practical purposes, a cappella. Songs involving the full five-voice ensemble alternated with some countertenor solos, an ATB trio, and a ST duet, giving a variety to the program of highly similar musical compositions and thus avoiding the risk of monotony for the uninitiated or non aficionado. There were many linguistic subtleties and inter-relationships between the works selected that are surely more apparent to the native or fluent speaker of Italian than they were to the evening’s listeners, but they were often well suggested by the interpretive gestures and facial expressions of the singers.

The performance was fine throughout, with good sound production and diction, and volume was well controlled in this “live” performance space. One of the pieces, Monteverdi’s “Gira il nemico insidios,” which closed the first half, uses the battle motif in the context of a love affair and was presented humorously, with perhaps a bit more slapstick than this reviewer cared for. For him, the most effective was the same composer’s lovely “Pur ti miro, pur ti god,” a soprano/tenor duet in response style, presented with the singers at opposite ends of the stage. Some of the singing approached the ethereal that one might expect with sacred rather than secular music.

The printed program provided a brief essay-like introduction to the music by Cavina and the texts and translations of all the works sung, although they didn’t help for the work substituted for the one announced, and in one case some stanzas were missing. Both solo harpsichord pieces played were substitutions for those indicated in print as well. This is not an unheard-of situation, but the substitutions seemed more numerous than one might wish in this case: 3 of 18.

It is rare to hear this music in this region and even rarer to have a group of this caliber passing through. The good-sized audience was enraptured and enthusiastic and came in goodly numbers to the reception offered in the parlor (which prior to this occasion I did not even know existed) on the lower floor, following the performance. A return visit will be most welcome.