Orlando di Lasso's Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of Saint Peter) is a towering masterpiece of the High Renaissance. Written in 1594 by its mortally ill composer, it considers, in 21 austerely beautiful madrigals, the spiritual sufferings of the apostle Peter after his denying of Christ.
Los Angeles Master Chorale invested an essentially contemplative work with new dramatic impact, thanks to deft staging by the radical American director Peter Sellars. Vocally, the performance left nothing to be desired, as the 21 perfectly blended voices (three to each of the composer's seven vocal lines) resonated in the old world acoustics of the Auckland Town Hall. This was an astonishing feat, considering the constantly shifting groups on stage and the fact that the 86-minute presentation was sung from memory.
Conductor Grant Gershon, taking different vantage positions within Sellars' shifting tableaux, also stressed the drama inherent in this music. Very early on, a description of 1000 spears and swords burst out with a vehemence that you won't hear in some interpretations.
A few minutes later, to words referencing 1000 stabs, Sellars had the singers collapse on the floor, one of many moments in which the thud of bodily movement added its own percussive theatricality.
There was no need to be mystified by Sellars' vision, thanks to Thomas May's exceptional six-page booklet essay, explaining how the director saw the depth and detail of di Lasso's polyphony as sculptural.
The detailed movements from singer to singer fascinated, and we could feel Peter's anguish when arms outstretched from a cluster of human forms. We also felt the vicious anger of crowds and, with subtle lighting, the rapture of catharsis.
By the final piece, sung in Latin rather than Italian, two facing lines of singers moved slowly towards each other and eventually embraced — a reverberant image for the peace and fulfilment sought by both Peter and the dying Orlando di Lasso.
What: Auckland Arts Festival and Los Angles Master Chorale Lagrime di San Pietro
Where: Auckland Town Hall