If you want an idea of how my Spoleto season started, think of the famous T.S. Eliot quote (from his poem The Hollow Men) about how the world ends: “not with a bang but a whimper.” Then turn the bang into a scream and the “but” to an “and,” and you’ll begin to understand what Musica Nuda, the Italian voice and double-bass duo, did on stage last night at their preview concert at the Cistern. It was mind-altering, exciting, and, at times, very, very weird.

Let me explain. Musica Nuda is Petra Magoni, a beautifully-voiced singer with a singularly commanding stage presence, and Ferruccio Spinetti, a brilliant bass player whose quiet, even-keel presence perfectly balances out Magoni’s larger-than-life performance style. Together they perform a huge range of tunes: last night, they played a Sardinian lullaby, a 16th century Monteverdi song, “Roxanne” by the Police, and a twee little Italian pop ditty from the 1960s. 

What made this so much more entertaining than you’d expect — than I expected, frankly — is that Magoni tears these songs apart. And I don’t mean that she performs them differently, or reinterprets them, or any of those standard things we say when singers make a song their own. No: there’s violence in the way Magoni sings this stuff, and a lot of it comes from the incredibly physical way she performs. She crouches, jumps, stomps her feet, scowls, moves her eyes back and forth like one of those Felix the Cat clocks, sits on the floor and rocks. In her sparkly silver-and-black top, crinoline-like black skirt, and killer black heels — all very Italian — Magoni reminded me a little of a Tim Burton character, albeit much stronger than his usual females. I’d read that Musica Nuda was influenced by punk and I didn’t think much of it, but after seeing them, oh yeah. It’s totally there.

Which brings me to the song I’ve been wanting to write about since it ended last night, right about the midpoint of their hour-and-15-or so show. That song was “Amazing Grace,” and it’s when the aforementioned very, very weird stuff started. It involved a looping machine and lots of soprano screaming, resulting in an “Amazing Grace” the likes of which will probably never be heard again, and — OK, before I say this first let me say that I loved it because it was just so damn strange and surprising and unlike anything I’ve encountered before — maybe never should be heard again. It was much more akin to a shocking piece of performance art than a musical performance.

I thought they’d lost the audience, and there were a couple walk-outs after the looped screams finally stopped, but in fact it seems to have been just the opposite. Post-“Amazing Grace,” the applause was louder and more enthusiastic than it had been before. (In a smart move, the duo segued right from the spiritual into a perfectly-done rendition of “Nature Boy,” so there was no chance for the audience to show either their appreciation or lack of it for another several minutes.)

Somewhat incongruously, in between songs Magoni and Spinetti kept up a thoroughly charming, funny repartee. They don’t take themselves too seriously, and it’s refreshing, especially after one of their heavier, darker renditions like “Roxanne.” 

Bottom line: you really should try to catch their show tonight.

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