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Scene from Marian Vespers [Photo courtesy of Dutch National Opera]
10 Jun 2017

Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers

A body lies in half-shadow, surrounded by an expectant gathering. Our Father is intoned in Gregorian chant. The solo voices bloom into a chorus with a joyful flourish of brass.

Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: Scene from Marian Vespers [Photo courtesy of Dutch National Opera]


Then, for close to two hours, a spellbinding ritual unfolds. This was not a wake for a Catholic notable, but Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610Vespro della Beata Vergine, conceived by director Pierre Audi as a mise-en-écoute. The premiere of this Dutch National Opera production, or rather art installation with live music, opened the 70 th edition of the Holland Festival. The corpse lying in state was Berlinde De Bruyckere’s Cripplewood (2012-2013), a huge, fractured tree trunk, made of wax and textile, the Belgian exhibit at the 2013 Art Biennale in Venice. Its raw and bandaged branches were inspired by the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, who was tied to a tree and pierced with a volley of arrows. Audi’s solemn and understated presentation was centered around this moving contemplation on suffering and mortality.

For the occasion the Gashouder in Amsterdam, a spacious circular building for gas storage from 1902, was transformed into a cavernous crypt. The music, by conductor Raphaël Pichon and his Pygmalion baroque ensemble, was the spectacle, underlined by subtle visuals. Seats were upholstered in neutrals and pale pastels matching the bandages and ligatures of Cripplewood. The singers moved deliberately, acting as both celebrants and congregation, in monochrome clothes, from contemporary smart casual to Victorianesque. Elusive video projections on the cloth-lined walls suggested light filtered through stained glass. Curling wisps on the cast-iron ceiling of the Gashouder called up pillowy clouds in church paintings. Felice Ross lit Cripplewood in a slow dance of light and shadow – exposing its jutting bones while clothing the rest in darkness, tinting it a restful bluish-gray, or intensifying its pink stains, the color of weak blood.

The musicians occupied a slice of the stands, with the audience seated on the rest of the circle. The singers reconfigured their positions for each excerpt, in front, behind and above the public. Pichon reproduced the early baroque cori spezzati (separated choruses) by scattering the chorus across the venue. He achieved the most effective result when the singers lined themselves up in the aisles among the public, wrapping the space in surround sound. Monteverdi probably composed the Marian Vespers, together with a mass for six voices, as a job application for a prestigious appointment in either Rome or Venice. Rome did not oblige, but in 1613 he was appointed maestro di cappella at St Mark's Basilica in Venice. As such, it is not so much a single whole as a collection of parts from which a vespers service can be assembled. Pichon chose to add Gregorian chant antiphons (call and response prayers) between Monteverdi’s alternating psalms and motets, adding about twenty-five minutes to customary performances of the work. The choir sang superbly, with just the right dose of vibrato, its fresh soprano section plating their sound with silver. The first Monteverdi versicle of Deus in adiutorium was calculatedly slow. Pichon then set his style of unhurried but varying tempi in the psalm Dixit Dominus. The musicians were not always as agile as the choir, but they provided rich continuo accompaniment and enchanting string solos featuring a lira da braccio.

All eight soloists, miked by necessity, were thoroughly accomplished. However, the two female soloists achieved a higher plane of tonal beauty, both individually and in their duets. Giuseppina Bridelli’s mezzo-soprano was the fertile earth above which Eva Zaïcik’s lighter-hued voice flowered gorgeously. Having the soloists answer and echo each other high above the public created sonic magic, especially in Duo Seraphim, where two male singers echo each other’s rippling melismas, then are joined by a third when they declaim the mystery of the holy trinity. Appropriately, at the end the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of praise at the start of her pregnancy, superseded what went before. Pichon gave it a light brilliance while maintaining the greatness of its architecture. A pensive Renaissance Madonna appeared on the wall, eyes cast down at her infant. It was as if she was envisaging his suffering, all human suffering, as attested by the mass of tortured limbs on the ground. As the staging was not connected to the text, there were no surtitles to translate the Biblical and liturgical excerpts. Regardless of how familiar people were with the words, the sound and images invited personal associations. Beauty, suffering, mystery, heaven and earth – Monteverdi’s ravishing Marian Vespers embodies all of these, as did this production. After the Magnificat Pichon added another antiphon. He then repeated the Toccata from Monteverdi’s opera L’Orfeo quoted at the beginning of the Vespers, bringing this extraordinary performance full circle.

Jenny Camilleri


Eva Zaïcik, mezzo-soprano; Giuseppina Bridelli, mezzo-soprano; Magnus Staveland, tenor; Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro; Olivier Coiffet, tenor; Virgile Ancely, bass; Renaud Bres, bass; Geoffroy Buffiere, bass; Pierre Audi, director; Berlinde De Bruyckere, sculpture and concept scenography; Roel van Berckelaer, costumes and set design; Felice Ross, lighting design; Mirjam Devriendt, video; Jan Panis, sound. Pygmalion Choir and Orchestra; Raphaël Pichon, conductor. Seen at the Gashouder, Westergasfabriek, Amsterdam, Saturday, 3rd June, 2017.

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