Lagrime di San Pietro
By: Simone Williams October 29, 2016
IF EVIDENCE WERE NEEDED that imaginative staging can provide us with access to difficult works of art, then it was offered in abundance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in an extraordinary performance of Orlando di Lasso’s a cappella masterpiece, Lagrime di San Pietro (1594) at the Disney Concert Hall (seen Oct. 29). A cycle of twenty-one madrigale spirituali, based on stanzas of a poem by the Italian Renaissance poet Luigi Tansillo and one motet by the medieval French poet, Philippe de Grève, Lagrime centers on the agony suffered by Peter after he denied knowing Christ three times in one day. The betrayal of one who is loved is posited as the deepest offense a human soul can commit against the world and, above all, itself. The cycle paints out the desolate spiritual landscape resulting from this betrayal, in music of breathtaking beauty, which is widely regarded as the highpoint of Renaissance polyphony.
Lagrime is not, however, an easy work to listen to and understand. To an ear such as my own, untrained in Renaissance polyphony, the subtle shifts in key and the individuality of melodies as they are passed from one voice to another are difficult to trace. Furthermore, the unrelenting focus on the guilt caused by Peter’s renunciation of Christ, is obsessive, which, in its repetitiveness, acquires a certain manic quality. But in Peter Sellars’ staging, on the bare platform of the concert hall, the music took on startling individuality and a tentative progression toward healing became apparent as the performance neared its end. This was achieved first through tripling each of the seven solo voices for which Lasso originally wrote the cycle, so that there was an ensemble of twenty-one singers. All were directed by Sellars with a stunning sense of spatial poetry. Dressed in grey and blue sweats, designed with quiet elegance by Danielle
Domingue Sumi, the ensemble’s singing and choric movement was constantly accompanied by striking gestures and poses from each of the singers that were indicative of extreme sorrow and emotional turmoil. All singers performed the same pose at the same time, but this was never a uniform process; each had their own way of expressing anguish that differed from all others. As a result, we sensed the pain of the individual, but it was enlarged by its context in the mass. The eye with which we scrutinized this spectacle then tutored the ear to listen with more sensitivity to the music, to discover within it the same sort of differences that were being expressed on stage. When the ear achieved this, it heard the music with renewed intensity and fathomless depths of pathos opened up to our imagination. James F. Ingalls’ steely, often cold lighting augmented the tragic atmosphere, though for the final motet, the large platform was flooded with warm glowing colors; as ensemble members hesitantly embraced each other, some respite for the agonies we had seen enacted might be at hand.
Grant Gershon conducted. He coaxed the most mesmerizing sounds from the ensemble, who constantly moved from one rich, seeming boundless harmony to another, but never into fixed tonal combinations; the score constantly changed and one felt viscerally these waves of change moving through the ensemble. Gershon, who moved among members of the ensemble, was as much a participant in their suffering as he was the orchestrator of it. This was an evening of deeply troubling beauty, touching depths of despair that many in the audience may have recognized. It is reassuring to think that this intimate performance of emotions of such intricacy and depth may have raised hope within them.