The Denial of Saint Peter is one of the most emotionally charged moments in the Passion story, depicted in all four Gospels of the Bible. Following Christ’s arrest, Peter, when questioned, denies knowing his friend and teacher three times before the rooster crows – just as Jesus himself had predicted at the Last Supper. “And Peter went out,” the Gospel of Luke says, “and wept bitterly.” It is this pivotal moment that Renaissance composer Orlando di Lasso examines obsessively in his polyphonic masterpiece Lagrime di San Pietro, or The Tears of Saint Peter, which the Los Angeles Master Chorale brings to the Melbourne International Arts Festival, staged by renowned American theatre and opera director Peter Sellars.

LagrimeLagrime di san Pietro. Photo: supplied

While Di Lasso, along with Palestrina, is regarded as one of the great masters of Renaissance polyphony, his Lagrime doesn’t get performed all that often. “Di Lasso, I think, sometimes gets overshadowed a bit by some of his contemporaries,” says Jenny Wong, who will conduct the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Melbourne. “People like Palestrina and later Monteverdi, for instance.”

Sellars puts it more colourfully: “Palestrina was kind of Mister Perfect – and that music is just exquisite and shining with spiritual perfection – but Lasso’s the guy who’s a mess: he’s a drug addict, Bob Dylan, difficult guy.”

The Lagrime, composed in 1594 and completed days before the composer’s death, sets 20 poems by Italian poet Luigi Tansillo, concluding with a Latin motet, to create a work rich in numerical symbolism: 21 pieces in which 21 singers sing seven-part harmony, three voices per part – and Lasso uses only seven of the eight church modes. The music itself is through-composed, unfolding without repetition.

Caravaggio’s The Denial of Saint Peter (1610)

“Not until Ligeti’s era would there be music written of this level of complexity,” Sellars says. “Di Lasso highlights text – using modal shifts, and dissonances – in ways that really kind of shock your ears,” Wong says. “It’s not just the way that dissonances come out of nowhere, it’s also the way that they resolve – they don’t end in places you expect them to. And so throughout the whole 21 movements, it never quite feels like the music finishes, even at the very end.”

“Lasso outlived his entire era,” Sellars explains. “He was the last Renaissance composer alive 30 years after the Renaissance was over – Michelangelo had died 30 years before. And Lasso wanted to die, [but just before he did] he wrote this music that is so heart-rending and so personal, and at the same time a kind of summation of what Renaissance music was, in terms of harmonic richness. It’s a masterpiece of a composer at the very peak of his powers, he could do anything.”

According to Sellars, Lasso chose to focus on the moment “when the cops came” to arrest Jesus. “They look at Peter and say, ‘Do you know this guy?’ And Peter looks at Jesus and says, ‘No.’ And Jesus looks back at Peter before they take him away,” he says. “The piece is an hour and 20 minutes of seven-part harmony, 21 singers – a community – talking about Peter seeing that look Jesus gave him, for the rest of his life.”

And all of this in order to describe a single look, Sellars says. “Some of it is kind of standard Renaissance poetry of the eyes shooting darts, and Peter thought that he would save himself from all the spears and arrows of the cops that were coming to arrest Jesus. Instead, he’s filled with the spears and arrows of his own conscience – and far more wounded.”

“Each of the madrigals is haunting and contrasting,” Sellars says. “One of them is about the way lovers communicate with only a look – and when two people are in love, only a look is necessary. The eyes say everything.”

Peter Sellars, Lagrime, Melbourne FestivalPeter Sellars. Photo © Ruth Walz

For Sellars the work still resonates strongly in the 21st century. “Peter spent his whole life regretting not doing the right thing at a moment when it counted,” he says. “And I think probably that’s a fair assessment of where we are in the world right now, politically. You’re watching this thing where you thought, ‘OK, I’m not going to make a big issue of this right now with the cops’, and then what you didn’t realise was that the rest of your life is going to get worse and worse and worse, and that you should have spoken up at a time when
we all knew something wrong was going on.”

The composer paints these ideas in music that is “heart-breaking and blindingly beautiful”, Sellars says. “Lasso is one of these people who creates chords that are so dark, that are so tortured, and at the same time that have light gleaming through them,” he says. “It’s like the dearly beloved of God is the heroin addict who’s gone all the way to the bottom. It’s the sense that because you are so broken and so far gone, you’re ready for a total spiritual transformation.”

This production for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, created with the Chorale’s Artistic Director Grant Gershon, isn’t the first time that Sellars has breathed theatre into a choral work. His staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion for the Berlin Philharmonic in 2010 has become, as Alex Ross has put it, “already legendary”, and he returned to do the St John Passion in 2014.

In staging the Lagrime, Sellars hoped to foster a deeper experience of Lasso’s music and a sense of its physical embodiment. “Everybody sings Renaissance harmony holding their little scores and looking in one direction,” he says. “What is so great is the scores are gone and people are able to sing in different directions. People are able to move as they’re singing a line, so you’re hearing all this harmonic stuff explored in space, which is just wild. Voices coming and going, people turning their backs singing to the floor or singing up, and so all of this kind of wild avant-garde music is moving in all directions.”

“It’s like staging Messiaen or Bach, you don’t want to just say it’s theatrical – theatrical is a little too cheap,” he laughs. “You want to say this is about real human beings, with real souls and real bodies.”

Sellars’ intent then is “to actually physically embody this rich, almost psychedelic level of music that is opening into inner worlds and outer worlds,” he explains. “Di Lasso can really depict what it is to hold a knife to your throat, and what it is to wake up in the middle of the night and still hear that damn rooster crowing. The imagery is so vivid, and at the same time he portrays a crisis of the soul that cannot be captured with any image. And he just fills the room with a kind of overwhelming emotion.”

“It’s my sense that this music needs to be more than simply appreciated in concert,” Sellars says. “You really want to enter this music and go inside it, and that’s really what this group of people have done. This music is such a physical act. What it takes to sing it is so incredible, and what it takes to blend the voices and create these incredible chords, it is such a physical feat.”

The staging requires all of the singers to work from memory, no mean feat in an hour and 20 minutes of complex polyphony that never once repeats – but that’s not all. “This isn’t just Italian,” Wong says. “It’s archaic Italian, which means there are words that even Italian speakers would be like, ‘Whoa, what was that?’”

“And then you add in the staging, which in itself already creates this fundamental level of physicality the singers have to remember,” she says. “Each singer devised their own methods to memorise it – it’s actually been very enlightening, some of them have created for their own voice parts their own picture books.”

“None of the movement is ever arbitrary,” Wong says. “On the basic level the singers have to know
what movements are we doing here, where are we moving, and yet on the more complex level every movement stems from a word, and the emotion that the word evokes. The entire process of the singers ‘memorising’ this work is really not memorising so much as digging into their own personal emotional connection with every line of text.”

“So it really brings the singers into a very emotionally vulnerable place,” she says. “It’s really a very multi-dimensional task that we have put upon our singers.”

Jenny Wong, LagrimeJenny Wong will conduct Lagrime in Melbourne. Photo: supplied

Sellars’ staging also moves the action, such as it is, into a contemporary idiom, highlighting the universality of the emotions. “Everybody has been through these very basic and necessary and inevitable human emotions,” Wong says. “To have been rejected, to have been loved, and yet to hurt somebody that you love deeply and how that guilt and shame in that one moment can be carried with you throughout your entire life.”

“There is a kind of amazing and implied narrative, but also it’s very poetic,” Sellars elaborates. “For the first 15 numbers you really follow Peter all the way through this one night. When he goes into a sports bar, people look at him. The guy who was arrested is on TV, and everyone keeps looking at Peter and saying, ‘Wait – don’t I know you?’ [After that] he walks the streets kicking garbage cans and shouting in the night.”

“We’re staging it pretty much without standard Christian iconography,” Sellars explains. “What’s so great is how Orlando di Lasso wrote it very, very personally. It takes him right to the end of his life. The last five numbers are asking God to let him die and are all about how unbearable old age is.”

The mental and emotional demands on the singers are extreme. “People were just so nervous going to that first performance. It started and nobody in the auditorium moved,” Sellars says. “Nobody breathed for an hour and 20 minutes. And then at the end there was this wild and intense and serious standing ovation. The singers didn’t even know what to do, they were just staring straight ahead, they couldn’t believe they got through it.”

For Wong, the staging also blurs the lines between the audience and the choir, creating “an experience that allows the audience to also experience what Peter was experiencing,” she says. “I think some of my friends have been so shocked at what they have experienced – even just musically, even if you just close your eyes at the production and listen to it.”

“You think about what Di Lasso meant for this piece to be, it being his very last work – and he knew it,” Wong says. “The kinds of depths of emotion require that the artist find those emotions within yourself. Human emotions are extreme and they happen out of nowhere and they happen suddenly. So musically it translates into those very unexpected moments in Renaissance music, which then makes it no longer just black ink on paper, but breathing music.”

The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs Lagrime di San Pietro at Melbourne Recital Centre, October 5 – 6