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Reviews

24 May 2019

Peter Sellars' kinaesthetic vision of Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro

On 24th May 1594 just a few weeks before his death on 14 June, the elderly Orlando di Lasso signed the dedication of his Lagrime di San Pietro - an expansive cycle of seven-voice penitential madrigale spirituali, setting vernacular poetry on the theme of Peter’s threefold denial of Christ - to Pope Clement VIII.

Lagrime di San Pietro: Peter Sellars, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Barbican Hall, 23rd May 2019

A review by Claire Seymour

Los Angeles Master Chorale

Photo credit: Tom Howard/Barbican

 

The dedication was a paean to the head of the Roman Catholic Church: “the most holy father, our lord Clement VIII, most excellent and great Pope. Most blessed father and most merciful lord”. But alongside such pragmatic and politic declarations lay more personal expression: “these tears of Saint Peter … have been clothed in harmony by me for my personal devotion in my burdensome old age’ (per mia particolare deuotione, in questa mia hormai graue età).

For his texts, Lasso chose 20 of the 42 octava rima stanzas which form the poem of the same title by Luigi Tansillo (1510-68). Tansillo’s poetry describes not the act of denial itself, as dramatized in Bach’s Passions, but rather the psychological after-effects of the agonised glance given by Christ to the apostle Peter, directly after the third denial, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke: ‘At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.’

Peter then spends the rest of his life dwelling on his cowardice and error, living in the eternal moment of betrayal and longing for the release of death. In Tansillo’s poems, Peter contrasts his sin with the beatitude of the children massacred by Herod and goes to the site of Christ’s crucifixion where recognition of his undeniable and ineradicable cowardice overcomes him. He retreats to a cave and spends his remaining days repenting and, since self-forgiveness is impossible, yearning for divine grace.

The stanzas set by Lasso focus solely on the lacerating glance of Christ and its tormenting effect on Peter. Numbers 1 to 12 are concerned with the piercing power of Christ’s glance, with the act of betrayal recalled in the first four stanzas. The remaining 8 numbers tell of Peter’s self-rebuke; from number 15, the third-person voice is replaced by Peter’s own. There is no ‘narrative’ as such; rather the drama is internal, enacted with Peter’s soul.

In 1559, the Vatican placed Tansillo on the Forbidden Index: his Lagrime prompted an official pardon from Pope Clement VIII. It is tempting, and credible, to view Lasso’s Lagrime as an expression of the aging composer’s own individual penitence - and this is the reading adopted by Peter Sellars, the director of this kinaesthetic interpretation of Lasso’s composition, presented by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at the Barbican Hall. After all, the composer’s physical and mental state in his final years is documented in deed and letter: in the form of a pilgrimage to the Holy House of Loreto in 1585 and an appeal from his widow Regina to Duke Wilhelm of Bavaria attesting to her late husband’s ‘melancholia’ - on one occasion, he failed to recognise his wife, spoke often of his death and was afflicted by sleeplessness and ‘fandasey’ (fantasies).

Others, though, including scholar Alexander Fisher [1] , view Lagrime in broader contexts: as a meditative process that ‘served the ends of contrition for sin and, ultimately, penitance’, and thus representative of post-Tridentine ‘sacramental discourse’. Fisher notes that common to post-Tridentine Catholic meditation ‘is the devotee’s awareness of sin, lengthy mental examination of its nature and consequences, and implicit or explicit resolution to make amends, culminating in cathartic moments of dialogue with a divine figure.’: ‘What is clear is that the Lagrime resonates deeply with a specific brand of religious devotion that was assuming a dominant position in Counter-Reformation Bavaria.’ Fisher views the closing Latin motet, ‘Vide homo’, which follows the 20 madrigals as the conclusion of the ‘dialogue between individual sinner and saviour that was so central to these methods. For those skilled in music, the steady ascent through the modal system, culminating in the unexpected A durus [mode] as Christ responds to Peter in person, would probably have strengthened the impression of the Lagrime as a kind of spiritual journey leading inexorably from the consciousness of sin to that moment in which all sin was washed away’.

Pierce his soul.jpgPhoto credit: Tom Howard/Barbican.

I allow that I digress here from the immediate purpose of this review but feel the need to do so in the light of Sellars’ adamant declaration that, “At this point in his life [Lasso] does not need to prove anything to anyone. He is [composing Lagrime] because this is something he has to get off his chest to purify his own soul as he leaves the world. It’s a private, devotion act of writing, but these thoughts are now shared by a community - by people singing to and for each other”. Arguing that the chorus “carries the drama forwards”, Sellars suggests that the work accords with the ancient Greeks’ understanding of tragedy, “which I could also call an African understanding, where an individual crisis is also a crisis of the community”. We hear one man’s thoughts, but it is the community that absorbs them “and has to take responsibility: a collective takes on this weight of longing and hope”.

Okay. Perhaps I should not have read Sellars' 'explanations' in the programme article - an extensive, very informative historical, contextual, musicological and interpretative account by Thomas May - before the performance itself. The latter was much more persuasive.

Three singers are assigned to each of Lasso’s seven vocal parts. The bare-foot singers are dressed in drab grey and mauve legging and slacks, shapeless tunics and ti-shirts. I was surprised to find Danielle Domingue Sumi credited as ‘costume designer’ - especially as conductor Grant Gershon (also barefoot, in black) explains that they strove for ‘clothes that look like they could come out of anyone’s wardrobe’: I thought they had. But, I guess the drab attire reflected the blanched landscape of Peter’s psychological wilderness. And, it allowed the singers to move naturally around and across the Barbican Hall stage.

For, this is what Sellars conceives as a physical and kinaesthetic representation of polyphony which is “totally sculptural”: the “muscular intensity in Lasso’s writing [that] is reminiscent of this expressive language we know so well, visually, from Michelangelo […] the muscle of spiritual energy and striving against pain to achieve self-transformation”.

So, ritualised movements, complemented by surtitles in colloquial vernacular, are designed to conjure the sculptural majesty of Renaissance art and architecture. And, how impressive the Los Angeles Master Chorale were in delivering harmonically and contrapuntally complex madrigals, their voices blending seamlessly and mesmerizingly, all the while adopting geometrical formations, pairings and poses; lying down, and sitting up; standing alone in alienated misery and clutching colleagues in warming consolation. Jim F Ingalls’ lighting followed the psychological modulations, now bleached white, now cool aquamarine, then fertile gold, or warming orange. Oh, yes; they had memorised the entire sequence - nearly 90 minutes of music.

Lasso prone chorus.jpg Photo credit: Tom Howard/Barbican.

Would it have been preferable to have a single voice to a part? Perhaps I would have liked greater presence from the soprano voices? And more shading and variety of tempo? But Peter’s agonies were intensified by the smooth sweetness of the collective lyrical expression. And, the attention to the electric charge igniting the poetical text and detail was masterful, in the madrigalian manner, and physically impressive. At the close of the 15 th madrigal (‘Váttene, vita va’ - Life, get you gone), the chorus lay down, forming a crucifix: “Afraid to die, I denied life,” Peter admits. How could the LAMC sing with such unified ensemble and sure intonation from such a position?

The physicality of the performance was emphasised by sudden silences and shifts, mimicking Peter’s psychological ups and downs. Some were dramatic, others disruptive. I couldn’t help but recall the simplistic clichés of school drama lessons at times. “The deadliest arrows that pierced his heart were the eyes of the Lord, when they fixed on him …” prompted a collective collapse to the floor (and, the singers stayed in tune …). There was much handwringing, chest-clutching, colleague-embracing. When, for the final few madrigals the singers retreated to chairs placed left and right, I felt some relief.

Lagrime closes with a Latin motet, setting the 13th- century French poet Philippe de Grève’s representation of Jesus’s final words: a plea for mankind to behold the Lord’s suffering - ‘Vide homo, quae pro te patior’ (Behold, man, how I suffer for you). The Lagrime, thus, end not with consolation but with rebuke: we do not transcend despair. Fisher argues that ‘Christ’s rebuke … is consistent with a reading of Lasso's cycle as systematic meditation: the Lagrime, after all, concludes with the reflection on sin and does not proceed further into the illuminative and unitive.’

Embrace Lasso.jpgPhoto credit: Tom Howard/Barbican.

So, an accusing voice confronts not just Peter but mankind. But, Sellars interprets such words as spoken in love: the chorus rise from their chairs and embrace one another.

In cathedral naves, the human narrative of such works as Lagrime can be lost; as the polyphony swirls around the vaulted ceilings, words are lost in an embracing blend designed to render the individual receptive to the divine. Sellars focuses on the psychological rather than spiritual, setting the transience of human mortality against the almost unbearable eternal present of the consequences of our actions. And, his reading is not without power and pertinence.

Claire Seymour

Lasso: Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St Peter)

Los Angeles Master Chorale, Peter Sellars (director), Grant Gershon (conductor), Jim F Ingalls (lighting designer), Danielle Domingue Sumi (costume designer)

Barbican Hall, London; Thursday 23rd May 2019.



[1] In ‘“Per Mia Particolare Devotione”: Orlando Di Lasso’s Lagrime Di San Pietro and Catholic Spirituality in Counter-Reformation Munich’ Journal of the Royal Musical Association, vol.132, no.2, 2007: 167-220.

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