I first came across Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda through the good offices of my composer friend Glyn Perrin nearly 20 years ago. He sent me the music and my music-trained Indian ears found the description of the battle of the same name excitingly familiar. With no libretto at hand, I had no idea what they were singing about. The cut and thrust of the words and the almost palpable physical energy it produced reminded me of the jathi used in Indian classical dance, modeled vocal syllables to create rhythmic energy.
So for me dance and Monteverdi were linked from the beginning, although probably not in the way the composer might have understood. He had in mind the communication of emotions while a jathi is abstract, though not dry.
Indian classical music and dance enjoy hiding the time signature from the experienced listener and challenging him to follow the rhythmic adventures of music. Anything that is too obviously revealing or predictable, such as a steady count of three or four, is avoided. Combattimento also has this unpredictability, albeit for very different reasons. The music is thrown and pulled in different directions to produce the sound effects the story needs. We hear horses galloping, swords colliding, and the sharp inhalation of a man’s breath in shock.
The title of the work, an operatic scene, makes it clear that it is a battle between two characters: Tancred the Crusader and Clorinda the Saracen warrior. So I was surprised to find that these two main figures have only minor roles as singers. He is the narrator (text) and the instruments that describe the drama; the hero and heroine themselves are mostly silent. As a choreographer, I was wondering where they were for the rest of the time. In fact, it was more than wondering: it became an obsession.
The only way to find out was to recreate them in the next production for my company.
Many others who have staged this short work have asked themselves the same question. Productions of Il Combattimento sometimes require the two singers to move or have additional artists or dancers introduced to play the roles. Invariably, the movement has tended to follow instructions to the musicians, becoming an extension of the orchestra, slamming their swords where the music says they should and, in my opinion, losing the difference a real dance score could make.
But I knew that such a score should, of course, have been an addition to Monteverdi rather than an extension. With this (perhaps reckless) ambition for an additional soundtrack in mind, the first musical decision I made was to make the narrator sing not only the part of him but also that of the two fighters. The physical roles of the fighters were taken by two dancers who, together with the narrator, bring the story to life.
A dance score, to be effective, cannot literally represent the images that are in the libretto. Sometimes the images of the dance need more time, or less, so it was a matter of judging how these two very different scores came together in the same time interval.
I could not have done without the creative generosity of Robert Hollingworth, our musical director and conductor, and Ed Lyon, the tenor who sings the role of the text.
The other aspect of The Combat that took me on another fascinating journey was the story itself. I was surprised to discover that this early Baroque gem concerned a very contemporary issue: the complex relationship between the Christian West and the Islamic Middle East. It is set in the first crusades. The knight challenges his enemy to a duel outside the walls of Jerusalem without knowing that the warrior is a woman: it is night and her face is covered. Adding to the drama is the same woman the knight had glimpsed on the first day of battle and with whom he had fallen in love.
The Saracen is duly killed and, in her moments of death, she converts to Christianity. So far all conventional, a story that presumably ticked all the boxes required by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time. But what is unconventional and far more intriguing is the fact that the woman refuses to name her even when the Crusader explains the perks of fame she will gain in future reinterpretations of their epic battle. She is rebellious to the end of her and in her last moments she is elevated by Monteverdi (and by the sixteenth-century poet Torquato Tasso, from whose book the libretto is taken) to an almost Christlike figure. The conquering crusader is left in tears when he realizes that the person he killed is the woman he loved.
If neither Tasso nor Monteverdi (and not even the narrator and the crusader) could convince Clorinda to pronounce her name, I wondered if she needed a different composer to convince her.
I was very lucky to discover that the Syrian-American composer Kareem Roustom was interested in taking on this task. I had heard a work of him called Dabke which is a popular social dance in many Middle Eastern countries. I loved the way he conveyed something very culturally specific and gave it a new and different authenticity.
First, I had to transport Clorinda to our times. And so a contemporary and communal avatar of the Saracen warrior was created to be played by four dancers. She is still a fighter, but now on the streets of a war-torn city. She remains a woman who loses a lot but never loses herself. Roustom’s music includes Syrian soprano Dima Orsho, who sings a moving Arabic song about war and suffering written during the early Crusades. The urgency of the strings in collaboration with her voice produces a constant disturbance that gives Clorinda a musical home. Kareem uses Iraq’s dabke rhythms to create a rich harmonic language of changing moods. The crisscross rhythms give a sense of struggle, captured in the intonation of the cello against the strings. The narrator and the crusader also make an appearance, establishing a connection with Monteverdi’s The Combat.
They ask Clorinda the same question she asks in Monteverdi’s work: “What is your name? Who are you? “In the intensity and complexity of Kareem’s music there is the beginning of an answer to this question.
• Clorinda Agonistes is at Sadler’s Wells, London on 9 and 10 September, then on tour until 16 November.