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SCRUTINY | Peter Sellars' Take On 'Lagrime di San Pietro' A Moving Ode To A Life Lived In Regret

By Stephan Bonfield on February 2, 2020

Under the vision of legendary director Peter Sellars, Los Angeles Master Chorale sang Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro to perfection.

Lagrime di San Pietro/Los Angeles Master Chorale
Lagrime di San Pietro/Los Angeles Master Chorale (Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale/Tao Ruspoli)

Lagrime di San Pietro: Los Angeles Master Chorale with Peter Sellars (director) & Grant Gershon (Conductor). At Koerner Hall. Repeats Feb. 2 

When it comes to Renaissance repertoire, choral music lovers know the greats and their most famous works.  Less well known is that when Renaissance turned to Baroque there seemed to be only one great work which stood at the pinnacle by the end of the sixteenth century, and that was Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter; 1594), a cycle of 21 mature compositions (20 Italian madrigals and one concluding motet) written in a conservative polyphonic style at the end of the composer’s life.

Last night at Koerner Hall, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, using 21 singers for the seven-part harmonic masterpiece for rounded three-on-a-part texture, sang to perfection all 21 compositions and with an enviable underscored tenderness throughout.  The Chorale’s depiction of text and music was delivered with astonishing clarity and uniformity through three sequences of seven poems, cast in a symmetry that comprised a breed apart of Renaissance summation statements about life, music and intense personal reflection.

A poetically vivid re-imagining of St. Peter’s meditations some thirty years after his betrayal of Jesus, we find the Rock of the Church ensconced in bitterness, reflection, and longing for release as he reflects on a life which had once denied Life itself, to quote the splendidly re-imagined libretto by the Italian poet Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568). The effect is singular but gradual as it invades its audience. Tansillo and Lasso evoked word and music to show Peter as a haunted man, his betrayal of Christ gnawing at him to the very last days of his life.

All ninety minutes of music (without intermission) were memorized and sung cleanest contrapuntal smoothness by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, directed by Grant Gershon, to a staging by Peter Sellars and a very welcome lighting design by James Ingalls.  Lasso’s set of madrigali spirituali were transformed to something akin to what we might imagine a late-Renaissance opera could have sounded like, had Monteverdi not come along more than twenty years later and composed L’Orfeo.  Part opera and part oratorio, half madrigal and half motet, the Lagrime stood at a crossroads between eras just when Lasso was aware of the polyphonic Golden Age passing and his art being replaced with something more dramatic and textually evocative.

Lasso’s Lagrime were to music what Shakespeare’s Tempest would be to the stage some two decades later, a swan song bidding farewell to an era that was gradually slipping away only to be supplanted by very alien sounds, sentiments and aesthetics. But what makes the work stand out are the agonizing reflections and synonymous regrets that can fill up a life when we look back in old age and wish for something different rather than watching the ways of the past being consigned to history, or looking within and wishing we had lived for a very different future.

And here, in the case of the Lagrime, there is tremendous sympathy for Peter who could stand-in for any of us.  For anyone who has been forced to look deep inside the self and has found something overwhelmingly repugnant within, the Lasso Lagrime may resound with disturbing familiarity and with stunning personal poetic resonance.

Lasso’s masterful settings run the broadest gamut of every compositional technique he would have used throughout his life.  Collectively, the pieces constitute an ascetic albeit creative testimony to the expressive power of music depicting one person’s experience of perpetual self-agonizing, or in this case, a disciple haunted by the last memory of Christ’s serene eyes finding Peter’s numbed gaze after he has prophetically denied his saviour three times. And for every night of his life, in Tansillo’s poetic accounting, Peter is forced to remember the rooster crowing, a self-recrimination of the kind culminating in lifelong guilt and shame.  Tansillo’s imagining is nothing less than a shocking contradiction to the biblical Peter, whom we imagine was filled with maturity and dedication to the responsibilities of his ministry, building a new Church.  It is small wonder that at the time of their creation, these poems were added to the Vatican’s list of banned texts.

Stark depictions of Peter’s denial and his tortured self-accusations of ingratitude culminate in the final motet, a devastating scene, almost operatic in its musical and dramatic scope.  Yet, these are madrigals, not arias, and they are often oddly serene as much as they can be shocking, as contemporary in their political and spiritual aspects as they are fulsome with purest Renaissance aesthetic.  Lasso avoids a degree of sameness in their tonal worlds by setting the madrigals to seven of the eight modes, assuring a degree of dramatic and harmonic variety.

Peter Sellars’ response to this music was to stage it in an understated, respectful manner, giving the texts exactly what they need, namely a directness that eschews the abstract and resorts to using stance and gesture to illuminate both text and music efficiently, phrase by phrase.  Singers lie down, stand, contort, pose, gesticulate and twist.  They stand in rows, touch each other for support when the text warrants it, then embrace and move apart in a choreographed cycle of emotional grief and mutual consolation.

Nowhere was this more dramatic than the last piece, Christ’s “J’accuse” to Peter, in which he exclaims how much he does for him and all humanity, but is met with ingratitude.  It is then that we realize that such unlikely words could never be spoken by Jesus, but could only come from the darkest part of Peter’s overwrought imagination, something familiar to us all when we imagine the worst about what we may have done in offending another.

What is gratifying about Sellar’s staging, is that he allows the text to express itself purely at this very human level.  Here he lines up the choir in two rows which slowly start walking towards each other from opposite sides of the stage only to meet in collective embrace at centre stage in the final chords of the motet.  It is within the cycle’s last quiet fading sororities of resolution that Peter finally finds repose from his tortured conscience. It is an awe-inspiring moment.

Equally remarkable is that the Los Angeles Master Chorale, acclaimed everywhere for these performances, made their task of superimposing Sellars’ free movement choreography on top of so much memorized polyphony seem so effortless to its audience.  Such performance can only come with great artistic commitment and personal journey.  In turn, the performers pass on their personal journeys through the maze of Peter’s noetic consciousness to their audiences via each arm and hand motion, seemingly brush-stroking every line of counterpoint into the air with a refreshing surround-sound swirl through the hall’s serendipitous acoustic.

Their performances of these spiritual madrigals were clean and untrammelled; tuning was flawless and uniform throughout.  Each chord hit the dead centre of every pitch, and while Gershon’s direction and the choir’s performance took no musical chances, there was a welcome and appropriate premium placed entirely on text expression and madrigalist emotion.  It was here that the LA Master Chorale were masters of this repertoire and with never a moment’s doubt.

They easily convinced the audience in the earliest seconds of the work.  People leaned forward, some stared, others had open-mouthed expressions, two people who perhaps had never seen a choreographed choir before pointed as the ensemble moved across the stage — and that was only in the first two minutes.  Throughout, the LA Master Chorale maintained the audience’s attention to this stunning work’s authenticity as tribute to the realization of life’s emptiness, even Peter’s, in the absence of the Life that grants life, on earth, or in eternity.

There were many golden moments throughout, but my favourite was Madrigal 10, the one that depicts a snowflake falling on a village that has never known the sun, only to dissolve and become a tear of Christ.  All the Madrigal contained poetic nuance and richness of textual beauty, conveyed with an uncommon and unremitting gravitas.

Such was the power of poetic message and its eviscerating quality.  For Lasso to set it, happy and comfortable as he was after his decades as a composer in Munich, and having received the highest honours bestowed on any composer (he was knighted by Pope Gregory XIII and made a nobleman by Habsburg Emperor Maximillian II), he still decided to set these poems as a last creative statement.  They must have carried great personal significance for Lasso and they seemed to have bestowed tremendous artistic resources upon him to transform his last work into a magnum opus, one for the ages.

He died three weeks after they were finished and never heard them performed.  We are the fortunate recipients of Lasso’s thoughtful art, a last glimpse inside the soul of someone who had it all, but who was also humbled by every human frailty as the hour of death grew closer.

It is an enormous reflection on Peter Sellars and the LA Master Chorale that they could capture so much of the work’s moving ode to a life lived in hollow regret without losing any of the text or music’s spiritual articulateness.  But to convey it all with a shattering intensity on such a personal level is most uncommon, particularly in a time when we are searching desperately for an exit ramp away from our civilization’s continued desultory demise.


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