Glimmerglass’s handsomely staged ‘Passions’ expands the boundaries of oratorio

Passions seem to be running high at Glimmerglass Festival.

The company’s ambitious double-bill program, carrying the title
Passions, takes a pair of sacred vocal masterpieces written some 270
years apart and turns up the drama by adding staging and costumes. The finished
product produces a handsome visual experience that complements the music.

The title of the program is somewhat misleading, given that neither Giovanni
Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater nor David Lang’s The Little
Match Girl Passion
fits the definition of a passion: a story recounting
the suffering of Christ at the Cross. Nor do these works fit the definition of
an oratorio or cantata, due to the staging. But whatever you prefer to call it,
it’s clear that the present reworking of these pieces adds an appealing
visual element to an already potent musical experience.

The Stabat Mater in C Minor, which gets my vote for the artistic
highlight of the evening, was Pergolesi’s final composition: He succumbed to
consumption in 1736, shortly after finishing the work. He was 26 years old. The
oratorio for soprano and alto soloists with strings and continuo enjoyed
widespread popularity — both within and beyond the Baroque era. (Listeners
familiar with the film Amadeus will no doubt recognize the final
measures of the concluding Amen, which is quoted in the film.)

The quality of musical performance in this Glimmerglass production, buoyed
by a pair of first-rate vocal soloists and the meticulous direction of
conductor Speranza Scappucci, was outstanding. So, too, was Jessica Lang’s
choreographed body movement — which resonated well with the deep pathos of
the music.

The dancers were often synchronized in coordinated motions with the vocal
soloists, as if paired in a dramatic pas de deux of pain and anguish.
Indeed, the writhing and twisting of bodies, along with contrasts of shadow and
light made possible by Mark McCullough’s lighting effects, reminds me of
figures in a Caravaggio painting. The minimalist set comprising two giant logs
slowly changed position to suggest everything from trees to The Last Supper and
the Crucifixion.

The decision to substitute a countertenor for the more customary alto or
mezzo-soprano soloist afforded Anthony Roth Costanzo an opportunity to showcase
his considerable powers of expression. Costanzo, whom some may remember as
Ferdinand in the Metropolitan Opera’s Baroque fantasy pastiche, The
Enchanted Island
, simulcast live in HD a year ago January, produced a pure
and creamy male alto that blended smoothly with Nadine Sierra’s silky

The flexibility of Costanzo’s vocal timbre was especially apparent in
those numbers involving trills and other ornaments — such as theQuae
moerebat et dolebat
, which he performed handsomely in-sync with the
dancers. His stark dynamic shifts in the Quis non posset contristari
at the end of the duet with Sierra were particularly effective. I was
especially moved by Costanzo’s deeply expressive vocal delivery, and the
smoothly shaped movement of his arms and torso throughout the dramatic and
stately Eja mater fons amoris.

Like Costanzo, Sierra’s soprano was full of expression and color, and the
movement of her body in tandem with the dancers looked natural and effortless.
This combination of sweetness and passion was apparent early on, beginning with
the Cujus animam gementem — a lamentful aria that shows off her rich
and mellow lower register. Sierra is secure in the higher register as well, as
evident in her tender duet O quam tristis, sung in thirds with the
second vocal part. Sierra’s dexterous execution of the rapid trills and
ornaments in the duet Fac, ut ardeat con meum (one of the rare fast
numbers in this oratorio) was particularly impressive.

The most effective use of the set comes at the mournful final number,
Quando corpus morietur — the evocative duet that precedes the
concluding Amen. For me, this was the most emotionally charged number
in the piece. Here, the staging helps capture the mood of resignation as the
logs join together to forge a long table that seats the dancers —symbolizing
The Last Supper.

Audience reaction to the performance was swift and uniform — an immediate
andprolonged standing ovation peppered with voracious shouts of approval for
the soloists, conductor, instrumentalists, dancers, choreographer and set
director (Marjorie Bradley Kellogg).

* * * * * * *
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, based largely upon a
Hans Christian Anderson tale, tells the story of a poor young girl (Victoria
Munro) forced by her cruel father to sell matches in the streets on New
Year’s Eve. Barefoot, cold and hungry, the little girl strikes match after
match trying to keep warm, but — spoiler alert! — she will not live to see
the start of the new year.

As was the case with the Stabat Mater, dramatic potency is
heightened as a direct result of the staging — which in this case is
dominated by the presence of a 24-voice children’s chorus costumed to look
like characters in the Broadway musical, Oliver! A steady stream of
falling snowflakes (a nice touch by Director Francesca Zambello) evokes the
coldness of the streets and reminds us that the warmth of the Christmas season
is not within reach of all.

In spite of the handsome visuals, however, Lang’s music — which is
remarkably effective in the sparsely voiced original with a quartet of singers
doubling on percussion instruments — loses much of its intimacy and focus in
the larger, staged setting of the work. Indeed, it was the chamber version of
The Little Match Girl Passion, and not Lang’s subsequent choral
arrangement, that earned the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music. (A convincing
recording of the original version with Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices is
available on the Harmonia Mundi label.)

Lang’s writing in this piece may best be described as a synthesis musical
styles from both past and present, bonded together with post-minimalist
techniques such as unrelenting repetition of melodic patterns, overlapping
rhythms and painstakingly slow harmonic motion (speed of the chord changes).

Critics have likened the meditative quality of Lang’s music to plainchant,
but a more accurate comparison would be the vocal polyphonic styles of the
Medieval and Renaissance eras, including 13th century cantus firmus
techniques (where the lower part moves much slower than the rest), as well as
elements from 15th century motets and 16th century madrigals. But once you
abandon the intimacy of a one-on-a-part performance, you forfeit much of its
meditative and personal appeal, as well. In the end, the presence of the chorus
in Lang’s work provided more of a distraction than a musical complement.

Because Lang treats the four voices as quasi-contrapuntal independent
melodic lines, it’s a constant challenge for the singers to blend sound and
match pitches with any degree of consistency. The four Glimmerglass Young
Artists program
soloists — soprano Lisa Williamson, mezzo-soprano Julia
Mintzer, tenor James Michael Porter and bass Christian Zaremba — did justice
to this work, and each delivered an impressive individual effort. There were
occasional moments where blend of tone sounded choppy and pitch among the four
was questionable. Still, the overall effort was impressive. Credit James
Michael Porter with navigating the upper tenor register with apparent ease and

The large but well-disciplined children’s chorus moved about the stage
gracefully under the preparation and guidance of choreographer Andrea Beasom
(another Glimmerglass Young Artist), and the chorus maintained a
pleasant and homogenous blend of tone. Many of Lang’s sonorities, however,
proved a bit too challenging for the youngsters, who struggled with intonation
issues throughout the performance.

I expect many of these performance problems will iron themselves out over
the course of the production run. The Little Match Girl Passion is a
masterpiece of contemporary dramatic vocal writing, but it takes a first-rate
performance to do it justice. It’s well worth the effort. And passion.

David Abrams

This review first appeared at CNY CafÈ Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

image_description=Victoria Munro (center) with the children’s chorus in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2013 production of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.
product_title=Glimmerglass’s handsomely staged ‘Passions’ expands the boundaries of oratorio
product_by=A review by David Abrams
product_id=Above: Victoria Munro (center) with the children’s chorus in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2013 production of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion. [Photo: Karli Cadel / The Glimmerglass Festival]