On the day of the European parliamentary elections, to see Peter Sellars’ staged version of an a cappella Renaissance choral work, Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of St Peter), was balm for the soul. In an absorbing performance at the Barbican Centre, Sellars and the Los Angeles Master Chorale present Lasso’s masterpiece as an allegory of the necessity of confronting the pain of the past in order to face the future.
In Lasso’s 20 madrigals, set to devotional poems by Luigi Tansillo (1510-68), the painful past belongs to none other than St Peter, now an anguished old man lamenting his disavowal of Jesus. The seven-part madrigals are divided among 21 singers, whose choreographed movements illuminate the emotional landscape. Like his singers, the Chorale’s admirable artistic director Grant Gershon has memorised the score and is in motion while performing.
Choral singers are not necessarily great dancers, although they can be good actors, and this makes it all the more human. Wearing plain, earth-toned clothing, the singers fall to the floor, drop to their knees, raise their hands in despair – their movements sometimes semaphore-like in a literal depiction of the text. It’s the smaller gestures, and the Chorale’s vocal prowess, that linger in the mind. The performance is also boosted by James F Ingalls’ evocative lighting and the use of surtitles directly above the singers.
Best known in this country for his opera collaborations with composer John Adams, Sellars’ potent staging of this Renaissance masterpiece continues his long history of tapping into the zeitgeist.