Created by Professor Jane Davidson, Passion, Lament, Glory was a bold outing at St Paul’s Cathedral for the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music. A female-centric exploration of the Easter story – Christ’s passion (suffering), his mother Mary’s lament, and his resurrection – the performance was centred around much-loved Baroque music by Handel and Pergolesi, dramatised through theatre, dance and a dignified dash of circus with varying degrees of success.
The venue was among the production’s greatest strengths, but also its greatest weakness. St Paul’s is acoustically well suited to choral music, and aesthetically ideal: everything about this Gothic Revival cathedral was a reminder about how sacred this music was when composed in the 18th century, and the Medieval-inspired altarpiece’s dominant image of the crucifixion apropos to the Easter theme. The drawback was that there were considerable sightline problems during the program’s first half, presented near the centre of the nave.
Here, charmingly accompanied by the occasional “ding-ding” of trams outside, guest soprano Jacqueline Porter was joined by a small Baroque ensemble for the first work, Handel’s Salve Regina. Led by Con lecturer and Pinchgut Opera artistic director Erin Helyard at the organ, these professional players otherwise comprised only two violins, a viola and cello, but produced a robust, regal sound throughout the performance.
Perched on a small stage, Porter sang with beautiful clarity of tone, and strongly sustained notes. She was eventually joined by a dozen female dancers whose gentle movements in the central aisle were difficult to see – this would have been the case for most of the audience. The entirety of Salve Regina was particularly awkward to watch for those seated at the top of the nave, forward of the performance.
Following topical readings in the aisle drawn from Christian scripture, including Christ’s crucifixion from the perspective of his female followers, about a hundred ostensible audience members leapt to their feet. They reached toward what was for me merely the sound of whipping, but later transpired to be Tim Rutty as the tormented Jesus on the mid-nave stage.
This coup de théâtre escalated when the pop-up performers sang three excerpts from Part II of Handel’s Messiah, at first from their places in the audience, before massing at the foot of the main stage up front. This student choir was notable for the refreshing dominance of female voices, and capacity to maintain unison in difficult circumstances, including being strung out across the nave’s breadth with their conductor, Stephen Grant, in semi-darkness.
An interesting theatrical touch was having the female members of the choir ultimately draw black lace veils over their faces, echoing the dancers’ earlier arrival sporting a Middle Eastern style of veil – perhaps a comment on the veil’s long Western tradition, and the cultural links between Christianity and Islam.
It was all eyes front for Pergolesi’s Stabat mater. Instead of the traditional soprano-alto duo, the 12 movements were sweetly sung in turn by Salve Regina’s dancers, bringing an excitingly rich diversity of timbres to the piece. While Rutty was carried forward and placed on a cross stage right, and the ensemble played to the left, these Bachelor of Music students were also kept constantly busy interpreting the grief of the Virgin Mary and other female acolytes through dance.
Perhaps out of consideration that the primary strength of these roles must be vocal, the choreography was generally simple, with the exception of Jordan Auld’s leaping, twisting Mary. Her dynamism was in contrast to the other singer-dancers, whose repetitive waving and thrusting of arms, and melodramatically pained expressions, became distracting.
The finale commanded the audience’s undivided attention as Rutty, up to then a creditable actor, revealed why he was cast in this dramatisation: an aerial artist, he ascended and suspended himself from a rope with extraordinary strength and agility during the joyous “Amen” chorus. Surrounded by a seemingly divine light, Rutty represented the resurrected Christ ascending to heaven.
Lighting, and its absence, was a consistently strong aspect of Passion, Lament, Glory’s theatricality. The gilt altarpiece was bathed in light throughout the performance, forming a constant, golden backdrop and thematic reminder that often loomed out of a predominantly darkened cathedral. Matthew Adey’s design was otherwise muted and minimal (probably out of necessity), including the subdued colours and folds of the core singer-dancers’ costumes.
While this production is not without problems, it provides a refreshing, intriguing – even exciting – visual and narrative enhancement of these Baroque musical favourites.