The Full Monteverdi – FILM

From restaurant to screen – an ensemble film for an ensemble


In 2006, director John La Bouchardière and music director Robert Hollingworth started thinking about how to make some sort of permanent document of the Full Monteverdi project and brought in producer Greg Browning who had filmed L’Amfiparnaso for Chandos a few years previously. The three of them started a new company called Polyphonic Films, and began the long hard search for commissioners and funding. It was clear from the start that the film would not be a film of the live production.

Director John La Bouchardière discusses how he approached the project:
“When I originally created The Full Monteverdi, I worked with I Fagiolini’s singers and our choice of experienced actors to devise a whole web of narrative richness for the show. Each couple (made up of a singer and an actor) needed a story that would help create a single line through the 20 numbers that make up Monteverdi’s Fourth book of Madrigals. What we came up with, essentially, were six separate but simultaneous plots (that is, one per couple) of quite different natures but sharing one essential imposed structure:

  • The couples would have agreed, coincidentally, to meet in the same restaurant.
  • By the time the singing started, each actor had stated that they wanted to end the relationship.
  • All but one of the couples would make a last-ditch attempt to solve their relationship sexually. The now infamous “Number 16” is one of the most explicitly erotic pieces of music I’ve ever heard – especially when it is shared between believable characters and sung with the desperation suggested in the text.
  • All the relationships would fail, with the actors leaving the singers to contemplate their lonely lives.

The reasons for the break-up had to be tough and the stakes had to be high, in order to justify the extremes of emotion in the music. The difference between these reasons, however, created a fantastic tension between the couples – each with its own specific relationship to the music and the text – and very different journeys through the charted route.

Of course, that was the live show, when the audience had at least some sort of view of the whole ensemble, throughout, and was caught up within the vocal polyphony. But how does one re-invent that for the screen? Well, it’s an ensemble film and there are plenty of models for that. I can’t think of any that are sung throughout, as a continual reminder of the stories you’re not watching, though.

My initial instinct was, during one of our exhausting tours (and therefore wrong, I hope), that the only way to replicate the show on film would be to employ a 24-style split-screen technique, enabling viewers to keep track of more than one story at once. However, though that might have been very beautiful (it would have been great fun creating a visual counterpoint to the polyphony with the screens), it would have been a very self-conscious conceit. On reflection, I realised that one of the many great strengths of the project was the juxtaposition of high art and real life: any unavoidable conceit would have denied its shattering realism. In any case, the film will not be a replication of the show on screen. It has to work in its own right in a medium poles apart from the original, using the long life of the show as a fantastically well-researched resource.

One massive advantage of film is its ability to tell stories and this led me to explore the backgrounds of the characters and couples in a way we could never hope to communicate in performance. Why are they breaking up? Has there been an infidelity? Where are they from? What are the repercussions of the stories for the poor individuals involved? The result, on paper at this stage (though more fully realised in my head), follows the same essential structure above but intersperses it with flashbacks – allowing clear and acutely upsetting insight into the lives of the characters on screen. The journeys no longer have to remain within the restaurant either, though I have allowed myself one further conceit (bar the coincidence of the couples being in the same restaurant at the beginning) but to see that you’ll have to buy the DVD…