The third production to launch this year at Glimmerglass Festival is a pairing of two one-act operas spanning four centuries, entitled Passions for expediency’s sake. Presented in one bill, the works couldn’t be more different in style, presentation, and audience appeal, but they ultimately combine to make a unique and important artistic statement about suffering and love.
In the hands of director and choreographer Jessica Lang, the first one-acter – Stabat Mater, an oratorio composed by Pergolesi in 1736 – becomes a unforgettably powerful and resonant expression of the love and suffering of Mary, mother of the crucified Christ. Inspired by Pergolesi’s timeless and hauntingly beautiful score, Lang interwove early music with modern dance, and other theatrical elements to create a pure and perfect exploration of a universal story of a mother’s love.
If the Latin title of the work sounds austere, the production is anything but. One doesn’t have to be a devotee of early music or of modern dance to adore this work. Let me assure you that anyone with a beating heart and an open mind can engage with it and respond to it.
Stabat Mater is twelve movements, lasting about an hour, written for soprano and alto voices but rendered in this version by soprano and countertenor. Each movement is simultaneously interpreted by a dance troupe of young artists and, at times, by the singers themselves. The backdrop for the performance comprises two lumbering crossbeams that shift as the work progresses, providing varied set pieces for the dancers and to effect tableaux. The single prop is a large gray shroud that the artists manipulate in ingenious ways throughout. For instance, in the opening tableau, one of the dancers has draped the shroud over her head and most of her face, a madonna adoring the cross. It is a singular moment of placid, reflective beauty, but from that point forward, the production is an amalgam of glorious sound and constant movement.
It’s been said that Pergolesi’s piece was known to make Gioachino Rossini weep because of its sheer loveliness. So pure and resplendent were the extraordinary soloists in this production that soprano Nadine Sierra and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo might have made Rossini weep, too. At times, when they sang together, because of their mastery of the music and the caliber of their voices, they sounded even greater than two voices. It is no easy feat to sing and move onstage for a solid hour and both made it look and sound effortless as if they’d be born to perform this work.
The performances of the soloists was that much more remarkable because of the inspired staging of the work. Enough can’t be said for Jessica Lang’s vision of what choreographed oratorio could accomplish. She infused the dancers with her vision for the work, too. Each of the talented Young Artists dancing the piece deserves mention for contributing to the overwhelming success of this opera: Andrea Beasom, Jason Fowler, Maurio Hines, Danny Lindgren, Anne O’Donnell, Sarah Parnicky, Elliot Peterson, and Lily Smith.
It was evident from the show talk given by Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci that she had internalized the themes integral to the piece. Her deep understanding of the libretto lent sensitivity and artistry to her work as she guided the musicians through each piece in support of the work’s overall success.
It may not have a title or even a composer with a famous name, but Stabat Mater is a five-star one-act opera in the hands of Lang and Scappucci. Don’t miss it.
The second half of the bill was another one-act piece, the little match girl passion with when we were children, composed by David Lang, directed by Francesca Zambello, and conducted by David Moody. Lang’s the little match girl passion won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. For this production at Glimmerglass, a children’s chorus was added to the show, which lent a richness and tenderness to it. Without the children, relying solely on the soloists and percussion instruments, this piece, which was never meant to be staged, might have come off as both austere and lifeless. I have been moved by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl since I first learned to read. Lang’s the little match girl passion was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and is worthy of exploration. But the strangeness of the work – the chanting and stutterings – and the clamorous percussion instruments involved in this version actually distanced the audience from engaging with the work. While the whole did comprise a unique musical expression, it wasn’t a particularly moving one.
The vocal ensemble of Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson, and Christian Zaremba – all Young Artists – performed magnificently, often singing and playing a bass drum, xylophone, or chimes at the same time. The movement of the children as they expressed the story was also precise and evocative. The Little Match Girl is a story that one wants to be drawn into. Instead, you are left scratching your head and asking questions, “What was that about?” and “Why was a bass drum used?” and “Why were words repeated to the point of distraction and annoyance in the libretto?”
While one understands the value of composers like David Lang creating new American works for the repertory – a work glowingly reviewed and feted by world-class critics – and appreciates the concept of a Festival Children’s Choir to be groomed for future performances, compared to the first half of the Passions bill, match girl left me out in the cold.
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