Lagrime di San Pietro

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Published: 12th October, 2018
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Every year the Melbourne International Arts Festival showcases some works which attract exceptional interest and such was Lagrime di San Pietro – Tears of St. Peter –by  Orlando di Lasso. It was performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in  Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre on October 5, 2018, and Petdr Hurley was there for Classic Melbourne, expecting to be pleased as he reports ..

I am accustomed to listening to Renaissance a capella vocal music, and have a deep love for it. My partner for the evening –  being a music theatre person –  not so. We were both fascinated that this production had been directed by Peter Sellars, whose thought provoking interpretations of a number of operas are legendary. The two of his I had seen yielded a complete refreshment of the impact of the material, so we were both excited.

I did not read the program notes until after the performance. Among Renaissance composers, di Lasso enjoys a position of high esteem, both for his religious and his secular music. I was therefore astonished as this work unfolded as it combines the expressive range of his madrigals with the deeply religious text (from an epic by Italian poet Luigi Tansillo) of St Peter’s later life self recriminations on his famous betrayal of Jesus Christ.

The drama is certainly written in the music – di Lasso’s colourful and nuanced responses to the text take quite an emotional journey, but this was certainly heightened by the expressive range of the performance of the Los Angeles Master Chorale – both vocally and physically. This group is comprised of just twenty-one voices divided into seven parts – three voices per part. These were largely quite youthful, (though I was pleased to note some grey hair too) the sound was at all times clear and resonant, without any electronic help whatsoever.  The Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is of course a most wonderful acoustic environment to hear such work.

The score is deep, sophisticated and varied. Every feature was brought forward in the full range of colour by this ensemble. From intricate polyphony, through chordal textures reminiscent of majestic Gabrielli brass, from soft personal expression to brilliance and fury – the range of sounds astonished, yet were all in service of the text. It struck both of us that there were chord progressions and relationships that truly caused surprise.  After four hundred years, some of these still had a power to sound startlingly modern. The surtitles were perfectly in synch for us to follow the translation of the Italian lyrics, to the extent where it was possible to consider how the composer and the performers highlighted aspects of the text.

The gestures, movements and facial expressions at times called to mind a range of early artworks – paintings, woodcuts and sculptures – where, for example, a person is faced with the agonies of hell. Interestingly, the blocking was responsive to the variations in texture of the musical writing – for example, when the voices were in imitative polyphony, each would only move into the gesture connected with a word, idea or emotion when their own voice was up to that particular point in the text, so that the polyphony was heightened physically too. Where the words were declaimed at the same time, suddenly everyone moved together.

Technically, this performance was an extraordinary achievement. Though the choreography was at times complex and physically demanding, vocal mastery of pitch and expression was never compromised. At times I closed my eyes, the singing was as controlled and accurate as one would ever expect from an ensemble standing still – yet when I looked again, all of this was maintained while the choreography continued. Performers lying down, sitting up, walking, embracing, doing dramatic movements – none seemed to have the slightest effect on the quality and balance of the sound.

Staging just used the performers’ bodies on the stage in various arrangements, now static, now moving, sometimes during a piece, sometimes between to set a mood. The conductor – Jenny Wong – too changed position, at times walking during a piece, again none of which affected the assuredness of the performance. The costuming was interesting – very casual looking, baggy – almost gym clothes, all in various shades of grey – yet clearly all designed to effect by Danielle Domingue Sumi. Though contemporary, I wondered if this was a subtle reference to the biblical sackcloth and ashes.

Lighting states were beautifully subtle, the colours warming, cooling, brightening and greying in unison with the atmosphere of each madrigal/scene. Lighting design was by James F. Ingalls.

Atmospherically, the work was deeply engaging. There were lengthy silent pauses between each of the twenty-one sections. It asserted a meditative rhythm to the whole which threw the contrasts into relief. For the most part the audience were so mesmerized that no-one even coughed. The effect of a concert hall full of people so moved by this performance was powerful indeed. The effect of the whole is clearly a synergy of the musicality of the ensemble, and the vision of the artistic director Grant Gershon and Director Peter Sellars.

After the final item – a climactic motet on Jesus’ response to St Peter – the enormity of the structure of the work became apparent. Having held our applause throughout, the pent up energy of the final applause was enormous – people eventually started to shout for more, but any encore would have been wrong. This performance of this work was an extraordinary journey from beginning to end, and best savoured without being followed by any other music. As for Lasso, this work brings together his broad range of styles and approaches to a cohesive whole which is most satisfying to contemplate as one of his final works.