Lagrime di San Pietro: A Late-Renaissance Masterpiece Reprised by LA Master Chorale

United StatesUnited States Orlando di Lasso, Lagrime di San Pietro: Artists of Los Angeles Master Chorale / Grant Gershon (conductor), Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 18.3.2018. (DD/JRo)

Lagrime di San Pietro (c) Patrick Brown
Lagrime di San Pietro (c) Patrick Brown

Director – Peter Sellars
Lighting – James F. Ingalls
Costumes – Danielle Domingue Sumi

N.B.: Seen & Heard International reviewers Jane Rosenberg and Douglas Dutton attended Lagrime di San Pietro on the same evening and here share observations from their respective points of view.

Douglas Dutton: When ‘period music’ – a term that’s usually reserved for medieval, Renaissance, or early Baroque performances – arrives at a venue like Walt Disney Concert Hall, it is a rarefied treat, something that ought not to be missed. This surely applies to musical performances of the great late-Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso, where stagings are generally confined to the provenance of early music specialists and most often performed at colleges, universities, churches or libraries.

Lagrime di San Pietro, Orlando di Lasso’s last major work (and among his greatest singular musical accomplishments), was reprised by the Los Angeles Master Chorale at a packed hall on a Sunday evening. The performance particulars of the Master Chorale were, as usual, impeccable. When I first reviewed this extraordinary experience some eighteen months earlier, I marveled at the manner in which Peter Sellars, who directed the staging, was able to underscore the emotional states of the suffering, guilt-ridden apostle in ways that were sometimes direct, sometimes subtle. (review).

Jane Rosenberg: What’s interesting to me in Peter Sellars’ staging of Lasso’s exquisite work is that he manages to find a contemporary visual counterpart to the music, which not only refers to the piece itself but also to religious paintings of the Renaissance. Sellars conjures a world of suffering and redemption with a muted palette of modern, casual street clothes, celestial lighting (by James F. Ingalls) that brings to mind Giotto’s spiritual tints of blue and gold, and the movement of bodies in space,.

Though he’s not a choreographer, and the members of the Master Chorale aren’t dancers, Sellars uses the familiar gestures of everyday life to create a pantomime of intense struggle. These gestures – pressing hands to hearts, clenched fists pounding foreheads, hands covering ears – are literal and consume the piece, sometimes to a trying degree, but it is precisely this literalness in conjunction with the music that creates a spiritual aura and puts me in mind of early Renaissance art, in particular Fra Angelico and the Florentine painters of the Quattrocento. This dramatic staging of Lasso’s madrigale spirituali can be likened to Fra Angelico’s devotional frescoes in the cells of the convent of San Marco.

DD: I chuckled when I read ‘sometimes to a trying degree’ in reference to some of Sellars’ gestural staging, but couldn’t agree more. I took it as a sort of broad mime exercise, absolutely intentional, reflecting the various levels and degrees of St. Peter’s reaction to both the enormity of the event, and the degree of personal horror at his actions. These gesticulations emphasized the emotional state which alternates between intensely personal, with its admixture of guilt, shame, self-loathing and humiliation, and your observation of the ‘literalness’ of the visuals (mostly compatible with the text), while the music was spot-on.

JR: Given the simplicity of the enacted drama on stage and the organizing principal of the 20 motets and final madrigal, the music-drama refers, in my mind, to the purity of early Renaissance art and not to the exploded perspective and disruption of spatial unity that followed in the visual art of Lasso’s time.

Somewhere around the fifteenth motet, the singers sit in two lines of chairs, facing each other at some distance. After so much activity on stage, I found myself relieved of the burden of ‘watching’ and grew more consumed with ‘listening’. It was enough to simply look at the seated performers, as one would watch the musicians in an orchestra. Closing my eyes provided another immensely moving way to experience the music, and I’m wondering, as powerful as the dramatic experience was, if perhaps there was too much meddling – too much getting in the way of the music.

DD: From the fifteenth motet to the final madrigal, each step in that musical and emotional drama unfolds for me at an agonizing pace. Perhaps the ‘interiority’ is lost in the movement-choreography of the staging – I didn’t close my eyes – but the intensity of the music, the nuance of modal changes and the inwardness of the drama moved me in ways I had not thought possible. That being said, I agree that it would have been even more affective with less ‘meddling’.

JR: The stillness onstage had the added benefit of allowing me to focus on the hall itself – how much the space resembles the nave of a cathedral with its towering organ, high ceiling, rich woods and seats arranged around the stage like pews in a house of worship. The interior became part of the unfolding drama, referring to and enhancing the religious fervor of the text and music. Never have I seen Disney Hall so beautifully used for movement as in this piece – generally I find it unwieldy for anything other than instrumental concerts.

Grant Gershon is truly a genie in a bottle. He melts into the action on stage, appearing and reappearing where needed, squeezing into spaces, conducting barefoot on the floor, and all the time unobtrusively part of the shifting scenes. What he draws from his singers is remarkable, whether it’s the Master Chorale or the LA Opera Chorus. I saw him dance the Irish jig on the podium while conducting Bernstein’s Wonderful Town at the Dorothy Chandler.

DD: I couldn’t agree more. He is a deeply engaged conductor, and his singers respond to him with steely perfection. Lagrime was a profound discovery for me when I first heard it performed in 2016. With the multiple voices, shifting modalities, rhythmic alterations and displacements in time and location, not to mention the levels of angst, sorrow, guilt and remorse: no happy ending. It’s a bleak masterpiece, but, a masterpiece nonetheless.

Jane Rosenberg and Douglas Dutton

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