Director Pierre Audi describes Monteverdi's dramatic scene Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda as the composer's greatest work, a compact distillation of his most profound musical and dramatic thought. Whether or not one agrees with his assessment, the insight with which he treats the piece is a marvel of emotional intensity and economical theatrical power. The text is taken from Torquato Tasso's 1581 epic poem "Gerusalemme liberata." Tancredi, a Christian knight, has fallen in love with Clorinda, a Saracen maiden. Later, when he comes across a Saracen warrior in battle, he doesn't recognize his beloved under the armor, and thinking her a man, challenges her to fight. He wounds her mortally, and when he opens her visor and recognizes her, she begs him to baptize her. Audi's understanding that she requests baptism in order to be united with her beloved when he joins her in death is not derived from the text, which ascribes her change of heart to a religious conversion. In Audi's interpretation, though, her willingness to accept the faith she has despised and fought against is a powerful testimony to the depth of her love for Tancredi, and makes her death all the more poignant.
The action, which begins at the point when Tancredi encounters Clorinda in battle without realizing her identity, is described for the most part by a narrator, and the combatants/lovers sing only the few direct quotes Tasso assigns them. Audi's understated direction is coordinated with the expressive music with a precision that resembles choreography, and each of the characters moves with a grace that's beautifully balanced between naturalistic movement and dance. At the heartbreaking moment when their visors are lifted and Tancredi recognizes Clorinda, Audi creates a stage picture of unforgettable simplicity and grief.
As the Narrator, Guy de Mey sings with a beautifully clear tone and is able to convey the complexity of his relationship to the protagonists -- he is at once an objective observer, speaking for the poet, but also a first-hand witness who cannot remain emotionally detached from the tragedy he is observing. Lorna Anderson and Maarten Konigsberger, though they have small vocal parts, and for almost the entire piece are masked by full armor, sing and move with nobility and grace. David Porcelijn leads the ASKO Ensemble in a tonally pure and dramatically urgent performance. The sensitivity of the camerawork contributes substantially to the emotional intimacy of the DVD.