The Newberry Consort, an early music ensemble, dedicated its current performances to Queen Christina of Sweden in an evening of music and story about the distinctive royal figure.
The Queen: Christina of Sweden, the Girl King featured readings of letters and historical accounts by Chicago author Sara Paretsky and a concert of musical works by composers of the period, played on period instruments. The programs were held Friday at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Saturday at the Galvin Recital Hall in Evanston and Sunday at the Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park.
Paretsky set the scene by reading about Christina’s birth and childhood. At birth, she was thought at first to be a boy but her father the king welcomed his princess and vowed to educate her “as well as a prince should be.” Christina became queen at the age of 6, when her beloved father died in battle. A regent ruled Sweden until her coronation at age 18. The ambiguity about Christina’s sex continued through her life. She usually dressed like a man, avoided cosmetics and hairdressing, had crushes or affairs with both men and women, and refused to marry.
The concert, organized by compositions related to seven periods in her life, began with “Music for a Swedish Princess,” with La Verginella by Baldassare Donato and Prelude and Ciaccona by Angelo Michele Bartolotti.
“The Death of Gustavus Adolphus” was observed with a performance of Un ferito cavaliero by Luigi Rossi by soprano Ellen Hargis, accompanied by Erin Headley on the lirone (or large lyre) and Lucas Harris on the archlute (a tenor lute with an extended neck).
Paretsky’s readings described Christina as a voracious student and a strong supporter of music and dance; these passions continued throughout her life. She liked being a queen but wasn’t fond of the business of actually ruling a government. She also became interested in Catholicism, which wasn’t acceptable in Lutheran Sweden. These factors eventually led to her conversion to Catholicism and to her abdication and move to Rome at the age of 28.
The sections, “A Royal Conversion in Innsbruck” and “The World’s Most Celebrated Catholic” provided musical backgrounds to Christina’s religious conversion. She was honored with a new opera, L’Argia, written for the occasion by Antonio Cesti. The ensemble performed the prologue to L’Argia with soprano Hargis and the splendid countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen as Thetis and Cupid.
In the section, “At Home in the Eternal City,” Christina is celebrated by the Catholic church for her conversion. (The pope described her as the queen without a realm.) She settled in Rome with her own palazzo, staff and roster of musicians. Marco Marazzoli, a priest, tenor and composer, became part of Christina’s musical entourage. His opera, “La Vita Humana, ovvero Il trionfo della pietà” (Human Life, or The Triumph of Piety), was dedicated to the queen.
The section begins with an excellent solo performance on harpsichord by Christopher Bagan of Variations in G major by Bernardo Pasquini. Excerpts from La Vita Humana were sung by Hargis and Cohen in a delightful “double-echo aria”—a debate among three characters about the search for truth.
In the final section, “Love and Death in the Vatican,” Paretsky introduces Cardinal Decio Azzolini, the Pope’s personal representative to Christina. They become close friends and possibly lovers, although there is no evidence that their relationship was consummated. They were often absent from each other and wrote many letters, some of which survive. Christina died in 1689 at the age of 62 (she is one of the few women buried in the Vatican grotto). Azzolini died later that year.
Rimante in pace omai by Giacomo Carissimi was performed by Hargis and Cohen with the ensemble and reflects grief on losing someone dear. Passacaglias by Luigi Rossi were performed before and after Rimante.
Other musicians who performed during the evening were David Douglass and Brandi Berry, violin; Jeremy Ward, bass violin; Charles Metz, organ and harpsichord. Harris also played the baroque guitar during one number.
The two-hour program was a charming and insightful view into the life of a bold, highly educated woman, who was a feminist before her time. Projections designed by Shawn Keener were great enhancements to the narrative and music, which was beautifully performed. The Newberry Consort, which is co-directed by violinist Douglass and soprano Hargis, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Queen Christina was the subject of a 2015 biopic, The Girl King, directed by Mika Kaurismäki. The Finnish production has an international cast and a Canadian screenwriter (playwright Michel Marc Bouchard). The film was screened during the 2016 Chicago European Union Film Festival at the Gene Siskel Film Center; it’s available on DVD and streaming on several sources, including Amazon Video. View the trailer.