Los Angeles Master Chorale Bring Peter Sellars’s Remarkable Lasso Staging to London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Orlando di Lasso: Los Angeles Master Chorale / Grant Gershon (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 23.5.2019. (CC)

Lagrime di San Pietro (c) Tom Howard/Barbican

Orlando di Lasso – Lagrime di San Pietro (1594)

Director – Peter Sellars
Lighting designer – Jim Fingalis
Costume designer – Danielle Dominique Sumi
Stage manager – Pamela Salling

Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro (The Tears of St. Peter) was completed in 1594, the year of the composer’s death. It is a cycle of 20 madrigals (madrigali spirituali, to be exact) plus one motet for seven voices, of 20 texts by Luigi Tansilio, plus one by Philippe de Grève (the last, ‘Vide homo’: Jesus’ words, ‘See, man, how I suffer for you’) for seven voices. The number seven is important, clearly, and this performance allocated three voices each to the seven voices, giving a total of 21 performers (plus conductor). Interesting how this trinity saturates so much music (including the Stockhausen Donnerstag performed the previous evening); and also how here there is a shadow of the Trinity: the three times Peter denies Jesus.

The intent of this staging is to ‘connect to the profound humanity of the piece’, as we heard in the pre-performance discussion between Grant Gershon and Peter Sellars. Perhaps an intermediary/interviewer might have helped here – there was lots of mutual admiration – but both men spoke eloquently of the power of Lasso’s late masterpiece, a work defined by its ‘disquiet and turmoil’. The piece was described as a ‘rumination on what it is to grow old, to lose your memory, to become untethered’.

Sellers and Gershon with the Los Angeles Master Chorale worked on Messiaen’s Saint François at Salzburg; the present staging of di Lasso originated in 2011, when the two were working on Vivaldi’s Griselda at Santa Fe opera. This is Sellars’s first a cappella staging, a meditation on regret, self-blame and the nature of memory. Here, a single person’s crisis is enacted by a community (a choir). Dressed in shades of grey and barefoot, the choir performs from memory (Gershon also conducts from memory, and is also barefoot for that matter).

The gestures of figures in Renaissance painting inform the gestures of the choir throughout. The idea that ‘we all hear better if we can see what’s happening’ is another determining factor that led to the birth of this staging; and as the piece progresses, we both hear and see a procession of tableaux that speak of unutterable suffering. The surtitles are left on after a line is sung, deliberately, emphasising the power of the text.

The Barbican acoustic’s lack of resonance laid bare the music’s vulnerability, adding a fragility to the experience although inevitably, perhaps, one did hanker for some extra sonic bloom given the remarkable harmonies Lasso creates. Comparisons with music written at the end of composers’ lives such as the late Beethoven Quartets – particularly the slow movements – are entirely apt. The lighting was astonishing, a vital part of the experience, at one point even playing a part in illustrating the melting of snow. At another juncture, the choir looked like prisoners in a prison yard – just as Saint Peter was imprisoned by his past. At times it was as if we could see Lasso’s lines intertwining with each other. The performance standard was remarkably high throughout, a choir rigorously rehearsed and, perhaps more importantly, absolutely immersed in this most powerful of experiences.

To present this as a feat of memory is remarkable; the piece unfolds as a long plateau of regret-laden grief. Sellars’s Matthäus-Passion at the Proms in 2014 was incredibly touching; this Lagrime, too, resonates on.

Colin Clarke

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