What a brave, exotic and sacred feast was consumed here! Artists from Melbourne Conservatorium of Music showed skill and brilliance in daringly placing a sacred masterpiece within an new artistic landscape. It could have gone so wrong – but did not. Instead, it opened up greater possibilities of experiencing anew this most revered cherished and poignant story central to Christian culture, that of Christ’s Passion.
The desire to draw in the public to fully experience this multi-faceted performance of the Passion started the moment one entered the artistic spaces carved out of the wonderful late 19th century Butterfield interior of St Paul’s Cathedral. We entered in the fading light of an early autumn evening as the dimming outside light glimmered through the herringbone pattern of the clerestory. Underneath, the side aisle arches were subtly illuminated in an emerald green which shed a muted light, suitable to anticipate the sober nature of the story in music, dance and startling physical athleticism to be unfolded.
One had to work hard to even find a place to sit by the time the author arrived.
White elevated palisaded platforms provided the stages from which singing, the scourging of Christ and His Crucifixion was played out. In the Crucifixion scene a life-sized Cross was erected on the palisade in the transept. It was utterly realistic. The palisades struck just the right Roman military note for the scene in which the Passion of Christ actually took place.
The first soloist was soprano, Jacqueline Porter, with black lace veil falling behind her hair giving her a Spanish nuance, possibly an echo of Pergolesi’s association with Naples from 1725 and the Spanish influence of this city. The Salve Regina chosen was not the piece composed by Pergolesi, but by Georg Frederick Handel. Porter’s performance was beautiful and her strong, melodious voice resonated around the interior of the Cathedral. She was accompanied by organ and two violins of the Baroque Ensemble, all of them faultless performers.
The only note of doubt I experienced during the whole performance came with the entry of the grey wraith-like Greek Chorus of dancing women. I could not understand how their dance movements moved along or supported the vocals and story. However, this doubt dissolved as I saw one dancer make a move suggestive of the out flung arms of Christ on the Cross and was converted to the idea that their presence was prophetic and suggestive of the future agony of the crucified Christ. I had fully embraced this revised opinion of this Marian Guard by the end of the evening and was admiring of the grace, elegance and subtlety with which these singers, who were not trained dancers, moved. I particularly liked their part in the unfurling of Christ’s grave cloth and the tension of the interplay between the women and the dancer taking Mary as she tried desperately tried to snatch the cloth in which she would wrap her son.
The Narration by The Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, Rev Dr Andreas Loewe gave the imprimatur to this depiction of The Passion, lending gravitas and authenticity to the performance. His strong voice and clear diction ensured an assured rendition of the narrative passages, written from the standpoint of John The Baptist. (The writer was unnamed but the work was original and very moving). Heather Fletcher, who took the part of The Woman narrator, represented the fullest use of the talents of the performers, many of them used interchangeably as dancers, soloists, choristers.
The entry of Christ dragging his cross and the whole performance of Christ and his Roman guards was harrowing. The surprise pop-up choir technique was used to great effect at this point as witnesses to the action and the choir were more than able to handle this effect with a united voice of power and piety.
The peerless music of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater involved many soloists and Chorus, a standout voice being Amelia Wawrzon’s for fullness, melodious tone and beauty of line.
The role of Christ was delivered with utter conviction by Tim Rutty and many times I wished that I could not hear his piercing cries of pain as he was scourged and nailed to the cross. This was maybe too much realism. When I first read that there would be an acrobatic element to this performance and the aerial acrobatics were vested in the person of Christ himself I cringed.
However, I write with relief that the rope extending upwards into the high roof space of the Cathedral provided was a triumph of dramatic artistic association. Why has no one before depicted the Ascension of Christ like this?
I will long remember and savour this depiction of Christ’s Passion, aptly titled Passion, Lament, Glory.
Writer’s note: This was a production of the University of Melbourne, ARC Centre of Excellence History of Emotions. I did not know that this centre existed but know now that it needs to exist! I will be visiting the National Gallery of Victoria to view their exhibition “Love: Art of Emotion 1400-1800” as soon as possible.