One of the pivotal points in the story of Christ’s crucifixion is Peter’s denial. For a brief moment, the action steps away from the enormity of humanity’s salvation, and focuses on the remorse of one man who has given in to cowardice and denied knowing his closest friend. Jesus meets Peter’s eyes, the crowing cock alerts Peter to what he’s done and he flees, weeping. Anyone who know Bach’s Passions will recognise the devastation of this moment, captured in the aria “Erbarme Dich“, but Orlando di Lasso, in his madrigal cycle Lagrime di San Pietro, setting poems by Luigi Tansillo, spends just over an hour of music brooding on how one foolish act can haunt you for life.

Los Angeles Master Chorale
© Tao Ruspoli and Marie Noorbergen

Di Lasso’s cycle has been brought to life by the Los Angeles Master Chorale in a dramatised production created by Peter Sellars, which came to Sage Gateshead for the second of two UK dates on its tour. Combining the theologically significant numbers three and seven, the work is in 21 movements for seven voice parts, and this production completed the pattern by having three singers to each part. This turned out to be a good number for practical reasons too, as it balanced clarity and line with the forces needed to put across dramatic statements in a large hall.

I’ll admit that I am not a fan of the trend for creating staged versions of non-dramatic music, but as Sellars is the master of this genre, I reasoned that this would be a good opportunity to change my mind. I came away still not convinced by it as a dramatic spectacle, but I did gain new insight into how movement on stage enhances the way music is created. Every live performer has to bring some degree of physical expression to their music: Sellars takes this to an extreme, and by doing so enables the musicians to dig deep into themselves to find a heightened emotional connection with the music.

Dressed simply in shades of grey, the singers acted out the images and feelings of the text. Sometimes this was irritatingly facile, particularly in the earlier movements where the poetry speaks of physical things. Christ’s brief eye contact with Peter pierces him like arrows; Peter sees his error as clearly as a girl sees her reflection in a mirror; lovers know how much can be conveyed in one glance: all these things prompted rather obvious gestures, interspersed with the group turning away, throwing themselves to the ground and, for the movement where Peter’s heart melts like snow, the lights turned blue and singers huddled up as if freezing cold. Lasso tells us all this with great beauty in his music and to me it was a distraction to watch it being acted.

However, what the movement did do was to allow the singers to connect in a very intense way with the music and the text, adding an extra dimension to what was already extremely good dramatic singing. We often hear this repertoire performed by British groups in a very sparse way, where purity of tone takes precedence. The Los Angeles Master Chorale showed that early music can benefit from a richer sound and a lot of expressive colour whilst still keeping the clarity of the polyphony and achieving a unanimously blended sound. “Giovane donna” began the quiet, delicate poise of a beautiful girl, before erupting into the chaotic turbulence of a thousand years of speech, and the the next movement, “Cosi tahlor” was shamelessly erotic. Every expression of grief or anger was highly charged, and there was also some gloriously silky legato singing, notably in “Come falda di neve”.

The cycle shifts from Jesus and Peter’s exchange of glances to Peter as an old man, reflecting on how this one moment when he acted foolishly for fear of death has made the rest of his life a torment. This was the last music di Lasso wrote, and it seems to be suffused with whatever his own regrets about life may have been. As the poetry becomes more introverted, the movements calmed down and the singing gained a deep stillness. “Non trovava mia fè”, with a text recalling Jesus’ miracles, was quietly radiant, particularly in the passage that tells how the dumb found their voices, expressed here in a lovely spun-out line of melody.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale served up a final dose of self-flagellating agony for the twisting harmonies of the twentieth movement. Di Lasso then switches language and viewpoint, from Italian to Latin, from Peter to the voice of the dying Jesus, who tells us that the failure of a friend is a greater torment than any physical pain and the singers confronted each other in two lines, leaving us with a stark ending, shorn of any forgiveness or reconciliation. It was inspiring singing but, although it was clearly an essential element of the performance, the dramatisation meant that it failed to move me.