Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro of 1594 is a set of madrigali spirituali, which means that the form is technically secular, though the subject matter is deeply religious. The poems set were written by Luigi Tansillo, and explore the stages of grief and shame experienced by Peter after denying Christ. Lasso wrote them in the final year of his life, and, just as we feel as we hear them that Peter as an old man has spent decades regretting, and reliving, the moment when he made such a terrible mistake, so it seems that in the work Lasso is similarly looking back over his own life.
The work is regarded as one of the masterpieces of Renaissance polyphony, and within it numbers have a particular significance. It is written for seven voices, representing the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary, while many of the madrigals themselves are in seven sections. As a result, the twenty-one pieces in the set (twenty madrigals plus a concluding motet) represent seven times the number of members of the Trinity, or the number of times that Peter denied Christ. This staged performance by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, directed by Peter Sellars, even takes the numerical symbolism a step further by putting three to a part so that there are also twenty-one singers in total.
Sellars’ version was originally presented in Los Angeles in 2016, and represents the first time that he has attempted to stage a completely a cappella work. His aim was to make Peter’s suffering feel universal, since any of us may have had to come to terms with betraying a loved one. In this way, the madrigals are sung and acted by the twenty-one singers, who wear civvies of blue and grey, as an equally bare foot Grant Gershon moves about them as he conducts.
While, however, no-one can doubt the sheer beauty of the piece, it is questionable whether a staging can contribute much more in the way that it can with the St John and St Matthew Passions. In those, there are moments when the choir is centre-stage and others when the focus is on individual singers and instrumentalists, so that the staging can work with these variations to draw out different moods and themes at different times. Here, all twenty-one singers are involved virtually equally in every madrigal, and so the amount each has to do is also the same. As a result, it is questionable how everyone carrying out actions almost all of the time makes the piece feel any more layered than if none of them did.
Some actions respond very literally to the words so that imaginary bows are drawn and mirrors are gazed in when the relevant words are sung. Others carry more emotion when the word they convey is, for example, weeping, and these tend to be more successful. However, even here people tend to carry out actions specifically when they sing so that if three start on a certain bar they do something then, while another three remain fairly still before entering both vocally and physically on the next. As a result, the actions follow the music very closely and, when that is so brilliantly balanced to begin with, the best those actions can do is maintain the same level of balance while still multiplying out the sense of activity, which is more inclined to make the work feel less subtle and thus effective.
As a result, the staging works better when we consider the formations as a whole. One moment the entire ensemble can be facing outwards, but then it only requires Gershon to travel any real distance, as the others turn just a few degrees, for everyone to be forming a mass diagonal. Madrigal XV, ‘Vattene vita va’ (‘Go, life, go away’), is also effective as the singers face the back and then turn as they sing so that each line hits us as a magnified wave of sound. The final motet (with words by Philippe de Grève) is also staged well, with Sellars feeling that Jesus’ raging in saying ‘Vide homo, quae pro te patior’ (Behold, man, how I suffer for you) is so antithetical to the Biblical account of him proclaiming ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’, that he had to stage it in such a way as to suggest reconciliation. However, for all of the beautiful moments in the staging, there are some ugly ones, such as the portrayals of old age during the final five madrigals, for which the singers do actually sit for the most part at the sides of the stage.
The real strength of the evening, however, derives from the outstanding quality of the music making. The act of staging the piece demanded everyone to learn the music by heart, and the rewards in terms of the precision, balance and quality of phrasing achieved are extremely high. Since there are no other circumstances under which anyone would memorise such complex music, the advantages gleaned from this group having done so need to be classed as more than a simple by-product of Sellars’ approach. As such, it remains impossible not to marvel at the endeavour and commitment of the Los Angeles Master Chorale because what it achieves is so very great.