06 October 2018

MELBOURNE FESTIVAL: Lagrime di San Pietro

Lagrime di San Pietro
Los Angeles Master Chorale
6 October 2018 
Melbourne Festival
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall , Melbourne Recital Centre
to 7 October


One of my favourite sounds in a theatre is silence. The silence of anticipation that calms the ever-constant brain chatter. The silence that meditation promises. The silence of the full audience between the 21 madrigals in Lagrime di San Pietro was almost as exquisite as the work itself.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale are 21 voices singing 21 seven-part Renaissance madrigals a capella (no instruments). The music was written in 1594 by Orlando di Lasso (1530–1594). He died weeks after finishing the piece and it’s filled with every unfulfilled emotion that he needed to express before his death.

Set to the poetry of Luigi Tansillo (1510–1568), it’s about Saint Peter’s grief when he pretended not to know Jesus on the day of his crucifixion. That’s a lot of complex shame, self-hatred and hope for forgiveness. Would we deny the person we loved most to save ourselves? Could we forgive ourselves or let them forgive us?

Led by conductor Jenny Wong, the singers almost casually wander onto the stage. Their costumes look like they were asked to choose something casual from their home wardrobe.

Then they sing. It’s as close to perfect as imperfect human voices can be. They sing as one. No voice stands out. It’s like each singer sings only to support the 20 others. No part dominates, and the remarkably consistent tone is helped by there always being a male voice singing with the women and a female voice singing with the men.

That alone would have been glorious, but it’s only the beginning.

Director Peter Sellars and artistic director Grant Gershon find the human in what’s so often presented as serious and reverent choral music.

When Sellars directs opera and music, I don’t think he sees a finished product that needs to sound magnificent. He seems to start where the composer started – with an empty page, doubt and a need to find a way to express what they were feeling. Music and art come from same emotions that every one of us has and his work finds the “just like me” in the complexity of music. Find the human connection and the emotion and the music follows.

This chorus of singers move. The movement isn’t dance; it’s relatively simple and often obviously demonstrative, and it doesn’t take long to realise that Danielle Domingue Sumi’s designs are made for each performer and have as many shades of emotional gray as the content being sung.

None are dancers, but they move like they sing; no one stands out, no one seems awkward or out of place. They move with each other while bringing themselves into every moment.

While they are always performing as a group, every note, movement and expression feels personal and that could be why the audience found the clear and soul-calming silence.

Lagrime di San Pietro is extraordinary. There’s one more performance tonight.

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