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Glorious Suffering

by B.A. Nilsson on August 1, 2013

Passions: Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Lang’s the little match girl passion
Glimmerglass Festival, through Aug. 22

 

Musical portraits of suffering and pain probably go back to the beginnings of song, and the musical techniques of rendering it have since then grown ever more intricate. Our ears are long accustomed to the flatted third and its plangent cousins, but that’s not to dismiss the music of long ago: a dolorous Dowland lute piece still packs the punch of a good “Gloomy Sunday.”

The suffering captured by Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and Lang’s the little match girl passion underscores the original Latin root of the word “passion,” with the added Xian gloss that it’s good for you. Which is a perfect form of exploitation insofar as it relies upon abstraction rather than direct abuse, and has proven deliriously effective at emptying proletarian pocketbooks.

the little match girl passion

Glimmerglass’ double-bill dubbed Passion shows us two stages of such suffering: the look-who-loves-you-enough-to-have-done-it-for-you of Pergolesi, and the Match Girl’s you-are-ennobled-by-doing-it-yourself. And they’ve very effective.

Taking the second of them first, Lang has prefaced his piece with a choral work, “when we were children,” inspired by lines from Corinthians (“When I was a child I spake as a child”) but with phrases drawn from several translations and jumbled into alphabetical order.

Sung a cappella by a “match girl”-costumed children’s chorus, it’s a moody intro setting both the tone of the story—we’re old enough to suffer now—and the musical language, which puts the minimalist-styled text into Arvo Pärt-like harmonies.

Director Francesca Zambello seated them downstage on rows of low, modular benches that were stylistically manipulated into upstage seating for the “match girl” chorus, adding a vocal quartet drawn from this year’s Young Artists program: Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson and Christian Zaremba. Accompanying themselves on simple percussion instruments, including bass drum, glockenspiel and bells, the singers were garbed in severely Victorian costumes, resonating nicely with the sense that the little girl’s tragedy was good for her.

The simple onstage action wasn’t merely an enactment of the sung texts. Even when those texts weren’t artfully fragmented, they were often set in contrast to the behavior of the chorus and the Match Girl herself—adding an appropriate awareness of the gulf between kids as they are and as they’re viewed by adults.

The soloists were terrific, but we expect nothing less. The children’s chorus was phenomenal. Kudos to conductor David Moody.

Adding choreography to Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater brings out a sense of the text that allows for more ambiguity and thus takes us beyond merely commiserating with poor, suffering Mary. The stage is dominated by a giant, vertical, hand-hewn beam, against which poses a woman cloaked in a trail of grey. As the other seven dancers—all from the company’s Young Artists program—join her, the cloak shrouds another and then another, giving a sense of how each of us re-shapes manifestations of pain. Director-choreographer Jessica Lang’s device is reminiscent of Robert Joffrey’s use of multiple Juliets to dance the Prokofiev score—with a nod to Martha Graham’s Lamentation, in which the very shroud she wore seemed to take life.

Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s set design gave us a vertical beam that tilted and added a horizontal beam that raised and lowered to reshape the idea of a cross. The stage picture thus was continually altered by more than the dancers’ movement, building with sly effectiveness to a crisis point as the penultimate section sounded, the “Quando corpus morietur.” Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and soprano Nadine Sierra were superb as singers alone, but showed even more versatility as they were moved in and among the dance ensemble, heightening the sense of tragedy.

Written as it was in the last months of Pergolesi’s very short life, it’s hard not to think of this as a young man’s work. It bursts with exuberance, an effective contrast to the texts; it sobs convincingly where needed. It also showed off the excellence of the Glimmerglass orchestra, who applied the needed amount of baroque sensibility, guided by conductor Speranza Scappucci. It certainly deserved the wild, suffering-free ovation that greeted its finish.