To be honest, until now I have been fairly sceptical about theatrical stagings of oratorios and other sacred works: ENO’s stagings of St John Passion and Messiah, Glyndebourne’s ill-conceived dramatisation of St Matthew Passion or the more recent semi-staging of the same work for the Berlin Philharmonic all come to mind. So when I learned that this year the Holland Festival in Amsterdam was teaming up with Dutch National Opera to stage Monteverdi’s Vespro della Beata Vergine, I was curious but cautious. It’s not that I’m a purist, but that these visual interpretations hadn’t previously added much to my appreciation of the work, and often at the expense of the musical quality. In the event, my fears were unfounded, and this Vespers turned out to be fully engrossing experience – visually, aurally and spiritually.

The Gashouder © Ruth Walz
The Gashouder
© Ruth Walz

The event, held over the opening weekend of the festival, was celebrating two anniversaries, the 70th of the Holland Festival and 450th of the birth of Claudio Monteverdi. The venue, the Gashouder (Gas holder), which is located in the redeveloped gasworks complex in West Amsterdam, was a brilliant choice. Originally built in 1902, it’s a large, circular, pillar-less hall with an impressive cast-iron ceiling. Structurally it reminds one of the Roundhouse in London, but because it is pillar-less, it has much more spatial potential and can be configured in any numbers of ways. Above all, it has amazing, almost a cathedral-like acoustic, which the conductor Raphaël Pichon apparently fell in love with and personally chose to perform the Vespers in.

The performance was directed by Pierre Audi, the outgoing director of the Dutch National Opera, in close collaboration with Pichon and his ensemble Pygmalion, and also Belgian visual artist Berlinde De Bruyckere. In the programme notes, Audi calls this staging “Mise-en-écoute”, so rather than to dramatise the work, the staging was conceived sonically in 360° surround, basically by moving the singers around this vast arena to create a “sonic kaleidoscope”. We were treated to constantly changing patterns of sounds – from a single tenor to a ten-part chorus – coming from various directions, the front, sides, behind and from high and low.

Raphaël Pichon and Ensemble Pygmalion © Ruth Walz
Raphaël Pichon and Ensemble Pygmalion
© Ruth Walz

Pichon and the instrumentalists were placed on a raised stage at one end, and we the audience were seated in fan-shaped stadium seating. Between us in the round was De Bruyckere’s huge, subtly lit sculpture Cripplewood (first shown at the Venice Biennale in 2013), which provided a visual focus – almost like an altarpiece in a cathedral. A fallen tree trunk with gnarled branches merging into a mass of human limbs and bones, the imagery is of human mortality, of nature and decay.

Two circular walkways surrounded the sculpture – a low one in front of the audience and a high one behind – where the singers moved around, and there were also three scaffold towers set in the east, west and south walls of the stage from where the soloists sang. For example, in the famous “Duo Seraphim” the three tenor soloists sang from the towers, calling to each other. Also some of the inserted plainchant antiphons were taken by the soloist from the tower, although others were chanted by the processioning male chorus. On the other hand, the soprano solo in the “Sonata Sopra Sancta Maria” was taken by the two females soloists walking slowly around the lower walkway, conjuring the image of Mary in prayer. This scene and the following “Ave Maris stella”, which hinted at the Resurrection, seemed to present the strongest Christian imagery, but most of it was more abstract, speaking to both people of faith as well as people without.

De Bruyckere’s captivating design © Ruth Walz
De Bruyckere’s captivating design
© Ruth Walz

Musically, Pichon’s interpretation was perfectly judged, with enough grandeur to match this magnificent venue, but keeping things moving fairly swiftly. Each piece flowed seamlessly into another, linked by the antiphon chants, making a convincing case that perhaps Monteverdi did envisage the work to be performed in its entirety — how and when it was first performed is one of the mysteries surrounding the work. In particular, Pichon displayed fine control of his 30-strong choir, regardless of where they were positioned (at the back of the ensemble or in the round, or in the aisles amongst the audience). His flexible team of 13 continuo players (including gambas, cello, basses, theorbos, harps, harpsichords and organ) could be solemn or flamboyant at will, and the ritornello instruments – including recorders, cornets and trombones – added festive colour. I think that subtle acoustic enhancement and technological aid may have been used for the vocal soloists, who often had to sing metres away without view of the conductor. But even taking that into consideration, the quality of the overall ensemble was close to miraculous in this huge venue.

The magic of this performance was that although it was a totally site-specific conception, it managed to achieve such universality, transcending even Monteverdi’s original visions of the piece in a cathedral. It was an immersive and spiritual experience, and some of its visual and sonic images will surely remain with me for a long time.

*****