Peter Sellars brings Los Angeles Master Chorale to Melbourne Festival in a contemporary biblical tale
Composer Orlando di Lasso’s output during the second half of the 16th century was massive, as he championed a particular style of polyphonic music. (If you haven't studied music theory, polyphony basically means multiple melodic lines combining and overlapping to create an overall texture.)
But his Lagrime di San Pietro (Saint Peter’s Tears) is one of the finest examples of the style completed during the renaissance, and perhaps the composer's crowning glory.
Written in the weeks before his death – and with Lasso knowing full well that death was imminent and this would be his final work – it sets 20 poems by Luigi Tansillo to choral music, performed in this staging by 21 unaccompanied voices from the Los Angeles Master Chorale. There’s also a final motet, bringing the number of sections to 21.
Together, the sections recount various stages of grief experienced by Saint Peter after he denies Christ. It’s a work that’s almost throbbing with pain and anguish, which makes sense given Lasso’s state of mind and body at the time.
Religion is obviously a driving force of the work, but director Peter Sellars eschews any religious iconography and puts the 21 human singers very much at the centre of his production. They’re on a bare stage dressed in basic grey contemporary clothing, reciting simple choreographed movement that seems to emerge seamlessly from the music. They perform the score from memory – surely a huge challenge given the complexity of the score, lyrics and harmonic structure – and give just about as vivid a performance of this mesmerising work as you could hope. It's as mesmerising visually as it is aurally – it's a rare thing to hear a choir of this calibre, blending melodic lines together with near super-human skill.
Together, they imbue the simplest of gestures with the greatest meaning, whether they’re lifting their arms in a plea to some unknown figure or sharing a gentle embrace. Conductor Jenny Wong keeps the group in astonishing synergy, shifting position around the stage as the signers move.
Sellars has found an ingenious physical form for this music, but it takes a special group of singers to truly embody the heightened extremes of emotion contained within Lasso’s score. The singers seem always crystal clear on the motivations and ideas behind each of Sellars’ tableaus, and by the end they seem to have almost reached the divine.