The University of Melbourne’s latest performance project, Gloria Vivaldi, brings together ancient and modern, sacred and secular, for an evening of uplifting music and dance. Under the creative direction of Jane Davidson, and musical direction of Erin Helyard and Stephen Grant, Vivaldi’s sacred works have been reimagined for the contemporary moment. Talented students from the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music not only appear as performers (soloists, choir, orchestra, dancers), but have worked as choreographers, set designers, costume designers, lighting designers, production and stage managers, fostering a truly collaborative approach. By blending historically-informed musical performance, contemporary dance and staging, and the atmospheric venue of St Paul’s Cathedral, the performance brings to life themes of hope, praise and love.
In this sold-out performance, the glorious architecture of St Paul’s was transformed; this contemplative and historically significant space was bathed in evocative contemporary lighting and effects. This dialogue between old and new, sacred and every day, was woven through the production. Whilst the musical approach was governed by a certain fidelity to historical practices, each work presented was innovatively staged, adding newly developed elements of contemporary dance, costuming, lighting and effects.
The evening opened with Vivaldi’s much-loved Gloria (RV 589), perhaps his best-known sacred work. Vivaldi worked for many years at the girls’ orphanageOspedale della Pietain Venice, which perhaps explains why this work is scored for all-female choir. The choreography and costuming drew attention to the extremely varied emotional content of this work; from jubilance to deep sadness, from assured powerfulness to aching vulnerability. For me, the dance and the regal red of the costuming eschewed the “neutrality” of the musician’s uniform of all black, highlighting the feminine and the youthful qualities of the choir. The “‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei” alto solo was sung processing down the aisle of the church, a most expressive conceit, beautifully delivered. Throughout the performance, the orchestra strove for a historically faithful rendition, with many instrumentalists playing period instruments. The Gloriaboasted natural trumpets, period oboe and bassoon, which together delivered the characteristic sounds of the baroque orchestra. A giant illuminated orb was suspended above the stage, evoking for this spectator a number of possible metaphors. The globe evoked ancient notions of the Harmony of the Spheres, notions of virtue and the good (the virtuous circle), along with the religious symbolism of Jesus – “Sun/son of righteousness.” The combined effect was indeed ethereal; the spiritual elements of the work were ever-present the thanks to the splendid Cathedral architecture.
The Very Reverend Andreas Loewebrought the audience back down to earth and into the here-and-now, with reflections on the importance of love. The original text “But the greatest of these is Love,” surely inspired by Corinthians (1 Cor. 13), was embellished with a dance duet, evoking earthly themes of trust, hope and perseverance. Strings took centre stage with Vivaldi’s Sinfonia for Strings in C Major (RV 116), delivering an assured performance.
During the final work of the evening, the Beatus Vir (RV 597), the various elements of the performance truly came together. In the blue hazy lighting the giant orb became the moon, evoking the twilight when the Vespers (evening prayers) are typically sung. These liminal hours between day and night, which so often pass unnoticed in the bustle of modern life, were traditionally those of contemplation and reflection. The text for the Beatus Vir,taken from Psalm 111, explores themes of good and evil, sin and redemption, which were rendered through the dance and staging. The chorus dance elements were especially effective in evoking these themes, and the commitment of the performers (many of whom are not trained dancers) was exemplary. The seething throng surrounding the tenor soloist during the “Peccato videbit” wonderfully evoked the gnashing of teeth in the text.
Making full use of the stage and the aisles, the choreographers brought the performers right into the audience to great effect. The symbolism of the orb was in the foreground once again, with performers carrying and passing through the audience small illuminated globes, reassuring the audience that good had indeed triumphed over evil. Choir, orchestra and soloists delivered a terrific performance, full of passion and conviction. For me, the trio “In memoria aeterna” was the highlight of the evening, with soloists and orchestra delivering a beautifully balanced performance.
Dr Sophie Boyd-Hurrell teaches in the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, The University of Melbourne.