The medieval poem Stabat mater is an odd text. On the one hand, it pulls our attention away from Christ on the cross and makes us look at the terrible human pain of a mother who has to watch helplessly while her child dies a hideous death, but at the same time it lingers on the physical wounds and their spiritual meaning in a way that is typical of Roman Catholic mysticism. In their settings of the Stabat mater, Pergolesi and Vivaldi both blend these two elements into works that vividly mix descriptive colour with devout emotion. Tonight’s performance at Sage Gateshead by Bernard Labadie and The English Concert, with soloists Roberta Invernizzi and Sonia Prina, brought out all the nuances of these two sacred masterpieces of the Italian baroque.

Roberta Invernizzi © Ribaltaluce Studio
Roberta Invernizzi
© Ribaltaluce Studio

Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, written in 1711, is probably his earliest religious work, and sets just the first half of the text, for solo voice, sung here by mezzo soprano Sonia Prina. She has a fantastically dark and dramatic contralto voice, which also turned out to be surprisingly agile through the faster passages. Her powerful sound was matched by a flowing pace from Labadie and the orchestra, with strong pedal notes in the opening setting things going. The short stabbing chords, so typical of Vivaldi, that colour the most passionate sections had fantastic attack and well-judged decay, heightening the tension, while Sonia Prina stormed through her melodic lines with terrifying power.

The lighter movements, such as the third O quam tristis flowed gracefully, and leader Adrian Butterfield’s sensitivity in his solo passages created quiet moments of great beauty. By the final verse, Fac, ut ardeat cor meum, and the vigorous Amen, tenderness and passion had melded into ardent love, with Vivaldi’s final surprise, a major chord on the last note, taking the sting out of this dark text.

Before Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater we heard his teasingly short Sinfonia ‘al Santo Sepolcro’ (so brief, in fact, that Labadie had to turn around and nod encouragingly at those who had started to applaud), and Pergolesi’s setting of another text relating to Mary, Salve Regina. The twisting harmonies of the Sinfonia’s first movement were wonderfully subdued and full of tension, followed by a burst of energy in the Allegro.

Pergolesi died of tuberculosis at the age of just 26 and both the Salve Regina and the Stabat Mater were written in his last months. The Salve Regina text begs for Mary’s intercession and is associated with eventide and death. Pergolesi’s music is suffused with the confidence that comes from deep faith, and this was reflected in Roberta Invernizzi’s immensely likeable performance. Her tone was pure and clear but with an added velvety warmth, gentle expressivity and lots of engagement with the audience. Bernard Labadie matched this with a gentle swing in the orchestra and a strong sense of the underlying dance patterns.

The opening to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater this evening was surprisingly light and poised and although I would have liked Labadie and the singers to have lingered more on the delicious suspensions, the fluidity and sense of purpose set the tone for the rest of the work. At times Pergolesi gives us puzzling, cheerful arias, such as Quae moerebat that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in one of his opera buffa, and here Labadie let the music speak and dance for itself without trying to bridge the gap between the notes and the text.

Pergolesi set his Stabat Mater for two solo voices and having heard the contrast between Roberta Invernizzi’s purity and the darkness of Sonia Prina in the first half, I wondered how well-matched the two singers would be, but Roberta Invernizzi fattened out her tone and the two blended together every effectively, particularly in the passages of parallel movement. They stood very close together, and were both very physical, which made them acutely sensitive to each other throughout their duets.

The most beautiful and moving moment of the evening came in the central aria Vidit suum dulcem Natum in which passionate, agitated music depicting the desolation of suffering gives way to gentleness, and here, Roberta Invernizzi, helped by touches of colour from the theorbo, created a beautiful stillness. The alto aria Fac ut portem with its sensual words about swooning in Christ’s blood brought out the best in Sonia Prina allowing her to show her fluid sense of line and a great sighing unaccompanied melisma.

Like Vivaldi, and indeed Scarlatti, on whose Stabat Mater this setting was modelled, Pergolesi ends with a florid, uplifting Amen which draws a decisive line under the curious ambiguities of this piece. The music may not always have sat comfortably with the text, but Bernard Labadie and his soloists always looked instead for its beauty, making that the centre of their performance.