Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Douglas Messerli | "Redeeming the Future" (on the Los Angeles Mater Chorale's production of Orlando di Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro-Tears of St. Peter)

redeeming the future
by Douglas Messerli

Orlando di Lasso Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter), performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, directed by Peter Sellars / the performance I saw was at the Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts/Bram Goldsmith Theater in Beverly Hills on October 20, 2018

The very last of the 20 madrigal and motet sections of Orlando di Lasso’s masterful Renaissance composition Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St. Peter), “Negando il mio Signor,” summarizes and transforms the saint’s tortuous sufferings for having denied Christ three times before the resurrection. Jesus, himself, had foretold the denials of the man who became the first leader of the Christian church, who might never have imagined  it would be uttered through his own tongue.
     It is that tragedy, his love of Christ and his own betrayal of that love and his faith, that tortures St. Peter and constitutes his near-endless remorse as expressed in this beautiful work. That last madrigal which—as Thomas May writes in a remarkably insightful essay published in the theater program, straddles “the usual distinction between vocal compositions for the sacred (motet)” and the secular, vernacular works (often involving erotic and pastoral topics) of the madrigal, the opera form of its day—bemoans the saint’s own life-long recognition that “By denying my Lord, I have denied my life.” By betraying his beliefs, in short, he has betrayed the individual behind them, his own existence. It is such a modern psychological perception that it is almost breathtaking to hear it sung today.
     More importantly, the fact that it is not sung, as in opera, by a single individual, but by the chorus, the symbolic representation of the entire community, and, in this case, representing the early Christian community who themselves must carry the guilt and pain of their first leader’s temporary cowardice, shifts this work into another dimension. Lasso rather wonderfully, particularly through the more communal form of the madrigal, makes this an issue that shakes the entire religious community rather than simply one man facing his creator, which makes the final resolution of the motet that follows, “See, O man!” something that has meaning for all of us, not just the individual who has denied his own values.
     The “life too guilty,” the desires for “life, go away” is not simply Peter’s cries, but those of the whole of mankind who will not be able to fully embrace their own values. Somehow this has even more meaning at this moment in history than I ever might have imagined.
      The fact that director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and director Peter Sellars determined that instead of a production of this work the way it had usually been performed, with a stolid chorus standing in position accompanied by a few instruments, to instead create a truly a cappella work, conducted by Jenny Wong, and moving the chorus into vaguely conceived choreographic positions, brings a completely new perspective to this Renaissance piece.
      A friend of mine, attending the work, was not certain that the choreography entirely worked, particularly given the problems of attending to the English text on a small screen placed at the back of the stage, which was difficult to scan given the various “positions of suffering” that chorus members, often facing off as two opposing groups, enacted on the front of the stage.
      And there is, I must admit, some credence in her position. Yet, those terpsichorean movements also enlivened what, later in the work—after the group retreated to chairs in order to sing the final dramatic madrigals and the last motet—I felt the work had lost some of its energy. If the dramatic bodily interchanges between chorale members might not have always made total sense, they charged it with a kind of bitter anger for their pope’s (and therefore their own) betrayals. This after all was a religion still in fight with the rest of the world, and they desperately needed to justify all their beliefs and actions, not only to the world at large but to themselves.
      Lasso, fortunately, created a work so tonally beautiful that you cannot doubt these early believers’ (or later spiritually-committed singers’) purity of intent, and their dedication to the continuance of their faith.
    Grant Gershon has continued to lead the Chorale in a remarkable direction of great singing and performance, and this is one of the very best works I have heard them interpret.
     The costumes by Danielle Domingue Sumi (mostly dark blues and grays) reiterate the concerns of the work, while the lighting by James F. Ingalls re-informs the passionate concerns of the chorus, literally enlightening them with his intense flashes of white light.
      May argues, in his program essay, that at the time of this work’s composition, Lasso himself was an elderly man, having undergone his own series of doubts and melancholy during his creation this moving work. And, if that is true, Lagrime di San Pietro might be described, in fact, as a work of old men, a melancholic composer and an older scion looking back on his atoning sainthood (despite all the younger performers and artists who this evening brought this piece to fruition). And that fact, ultimately, makes this a very sad work, a long regret for having lived a life involved with doubt and failure.
      Still, it is also a very forgiving work, a passionate plea for the younger generations to forgive their elders for their failures with a desire, so marvelously expressed in Lasso’s music, for what they have left behind. Would that all of us old men and women could bequeath such a masterwork of redemption to our children and younger friends.

Los Angeles, October 23, 2018

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