It is a testament to the rich and varied musical offerings throughout the state of North Carolina that even avid concertgoers like myself are still discovering artistic opportunities that would be the envy of any locale. The Magnolia Baroque Festival is in the midst of its fourth season in Old Salem, presenting a variety of concerts celebrating the diversity and quality of music, dance, and poetry from the Baroque era. This presentation was named “Love, Lament and War,” a celebration of the brilliance of the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), generally acknowledged as the bridge between the Renaissance and Baroque style of composition. Despite recognition of his genius and groundbreaking influence, it is rare to experience a concert devoted exclusively to his music, so much credit should be given to Glenn Siebert, founder and director of Magnolia Baroque, plus all the world-class musicians, for this unique offering.

Much of Monteverdi’s output consisted of madrigals, of which he wrote nine books; the opener, “Lamento della ninfa” from Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi, set the tone of love and war and opened our ears to this unique and unmistakable sound. We were also introduced to the two instrumentalists who would take part in nearly every selection: Brent Wissick, playing gamba and baroque cello, and John Lenti on theorbo – a long-necked lute with two peg-boxes. This was a wonderfully-conceived program that combined intimate works for theorbo and voice, vocal duets with continuo, large ensemble works with harpsichord, violins, viola, recorder and small mixed choir, all the way to operatic excerpts.

At the dawn of the Baroque era (which Professor Peter Schickele tells us began on January 1, 1600), poetry was the dominant aspect of musical composition, and nowhere was that more evident than in the stunning “Lamento d’Arianna” from the 1608 opera Arianna. Soprano Linda Tsatsanis was mesmerizing along with theorbo player (theorboist?) Lenti as she brought forth the emotional power of this lament to unrequited love. In addition, the text was projected in beautifully enunciated Italian. This was also Lenti’s turn to really shine as he brought forth from his ancient instrument a variety of sounds, rhythms, and strums that punctuated the meaning of the text. Lenti also should be credited as the person who translated all of the texts of this program from Italian to English.

The program was billed as combining music, poetry, and dance, and the choreographed parts were the major presentations in terms of both musical forces and time. The first half ended with the battle scene from Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, a romance set against the backdrop of the Crusades. Dancers Paige Whitley-Baguess and Thomas Baird appeared in full armor complete with swords and helmets that hid their faces and proceeded to duel, all the time not knowing the identity of the other. (A screen descended that provided English supratitles.)

The evening ended in a similar vein with a different work, Tirsi e Clori, from the seventh book of Madrigals, also known as “Concerto.” The ballet from this work is quite stylized and seems almost a precursor to the courtly dances that would come to make up the movements of the standard baroque suite. Dancers Whitley-Baguess and Baird, this time showing their faces, were “in character” all the way. As interesting as the actual dance was, perhaps it was the way they took their bows that was remarkable in both their mannerisms and facial gestures. The musicians sounded like a full-blooded chamber orchestra and were masterful in exploiting the sometimes “dangerous” harmonies of Monteverdi.

Many give lip service to the importance and influence of Monteverdi but few organizations are brave or capable enough to present a two-hour evening of the music of this pivotal composer. These world-class musicians, many on loan from other ensembles and some from North Carolina institutions, were authentic, engaged, and quite superb.