Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers

Then, for close to two hours, a spellbinding
ritual unfolds. This was not a wake for a Catholic notable, but Claudio
Monteverdi’s 1610Vespro della Beata Vergine, conceived by
director Pierre Audi as a mise-en-écoute. The premiere of this
Dutch National Opera production, or rather art installation with live music,
opened the 70 th edition of the Holland Festival. The corpse lying
in state was Berlinde De Bruyckere’s Cripplewood (2012-2013), a
huge, fractured tree trunk, made of wax and textile, the Belgian exhibit at the
2013 Art Biennale in Venice. Its raw and bandaged branches were inspired by the
martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, who was tied to a tree and pierced with a volley
of arrows. Audi’s solemn and understated presentation was centered around
this moving contemplation on suffering and mortality.

For the occasion the Gashouder in Amsterdam, a spacious circular building
for gas storage from 1902, was transformed into a cavernous crypt. The music,
by conductor Raphaël Pichon and his Pygmalion baroque ensemble, was the
spectacle, underlined by subtle visuals. Seats were upholstered in neutrals and
pale pastels matching the bandages and ligatures of Cripplewood. The
singers moved deliberately, acting as both celebrants and congregation, in
monochrome clothes, from contemporary smart casual to Victorianesque. Elusive
video projections on the cloth-lined walls suggested light filtered through
stained glass. Curling wisps on the cast-iron ceiling of the Gashouder called
up pillowy clouds in church paintings. Felice Ross lit Cripplewood in
a slow dance of light and shadow – exposing its jutting bones while
clothing the rest in darkness, tinting it a restful bluish-gray, or
intensifying its pink stains, the color of weak blood.

The musicians occupied a slice of the stands, with the audience seated on
the rest of the circle. The singers reconfigured their positions for each
excerpt, in front, behind and above the public. Pichon reproduced the early
baroque cori spezzati (separated choruses) by scattering the chorus
across the venue. He achieved the most effective result when the singers lined
themselves up in the aisles among the public, wrapping the space in surround
sound. Monteverdi probably composed the Marian Vespers, together with
a mass for six voices, as a job application for a prestigious appointment in
either Rome or Venice. Rome did not oblige, but in 1613 he was appointed
maestro di cappella at St Mark’s Basilica in Venice. As such, it is
not so much a single whole as a collection of parts from which a vespers
service can be assembled. Pichon chose to add Gregorian chant antiphons (call
and response prayers) between Monteverdi’s alternating psalms and motets,
adding about twenty-five minutes to customary performances of the work. The
choir sang superbly, with just the right dose of vibrato, its fresh soprano
section plating their sound with silver. The first Monteverdi versicle of
Deus in adiutorium was calculatedly slow. Pichon then set his style of
unhurried but varying tempi in the psalm Dixit Dominus. The musicians
were not always as agile as the choir, but they provided rich continuo
accompaniment and enchanting string solos featuring a lira da

All eight soloists, miked by necessity, were thoroughly accomplished.
However, the two female soloists achieved a higher plane of tonal beauty, both
individually and in their duets. Giuseppina Bridelli’s mezzo-soprano was
the fertile earth above which Eva Zaïcik’s lighter-hued voice
flowered gorgeously. Having the soloists answer and echo each other high above
the public created sonic magic, especially in Duo Seraphim, where two
male singers echo each other’s rippling melismas, then are joined by a
third when they declaim the mystery of the holy trinity. Appropriately, at the
end the Magnificat, Mary’s hymn of praise at the start of her
pregnancy, superseded what went before. Pichon gave it a light brilliance while
maintaining the greatness of its architecture. A pensive Renaissance Madonna
appeared on the wall, eyes cast down at her infant. It was as if she was
envisaging his suffering, all human suffering, as attested by the mass of
tortured limbs on the ground. As the staging was not connected to the text,
there were no surtitles to translate the Biblical and liturgical excerpts.
Regardless of how familiar people were with the words, the sound and images
invited personal associations. Beauty, suffering, mystery, heaven and earth
– Monteverdi’s ravishing Marian Vespers embodies all of
these, as did this production. After the Magnificat Pichon added
another antiphon. He then repeated the Toccata from Monteverdi’s
opera L’Orfeo quoted at the beginning of the Vespers,
bringing this extraordinary performance full circle.

Jenny Camilleri


Eva Zaïcik, mezzo-soprano; Giuseppina Bridelli, mezzo-soprano; Magnus
Staveland, tenor; Emiliano Gonzalez-Toro; Olivier Coiffet, tenor; Virgile
Ancely, bass; Renaud Bres, bass; Geoffroy Buffiere, bass; Pierre Audi,
director; Berlinde De Bruyckere, sculpture and concept scenography; Roel van
Berckelaer, costumes and set design; Felice Ross, lighting design; Mirjam
Devriendt, video; Jan Panis, sound. Pygmalion Choir and Orchestra; Raphaël
Pichon, conductor. Seen at the Gashouder, Westergasfabriek, Amsterdam,
Saturday, 3rd June, 2017.

image_description=Scene from Marian Vespers [Photo courtesy of Dutch National Opera]
product_title=Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Scene from Marian Vespers [Photo courtesy of Dutch National Opera]