‘Passion, Lament, Glory’: Reflecting on the Emotional Core of the Easter Message

Closely cropped

By Frederic Kiernan (Research Assistant, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100‒1800) and Jane W. Davidson, Deputy Director and Leader of the Performance Program, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, Europe 1100‒1800.

 

On 31 March and 1 April 2017, the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE) combined forces with musicians (both staff and students) from the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music (MCM) to present a reimagined dramatisation of Christ’s scourging, crucifixion and resurrection, under the artistic direction of Jane Davidson, with design by Matthew Adey. The event, titled ‘Passion, Lament, Glory’, took place in St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, the nineteenth-century sandstone structure in Melbourne’s central business district. The building has long been one of the city’s architectural landmarks, and the unique atmosphere of the Cathedral’s interior, designed by English Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield, provided an opportunity for attendees ‒ regardless of faith or creed ‒ to reflect on the emotional core of the Easter message through music, drama and dance.

It is well-known that, in Christianity, the Passion (or suffering) of Christ is understood as God’s plan for the salvation of humanity: Jesus bears the guilt of our sins and dies to pay our penalty (Romans 5:8). Through his sacrifice, humans are redeemed ‘with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect’ (1 Peter 1:19). Jesus was ‘pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:3, 5). Dramatisations of this story (‘Passion Plays’) have a long and fascinating history, with some traditions dating back to medieval Europe. Historically, these performances have allowed for local understandings of the Easter message to be expressed and reflected upon, and the current production explored the emotional currency of this message in twenty-first-century Melbourne using a blend of baroque music, staging and spectacular aerial artistry.

The production included performances of George Frideric Handel’s (1685–1759) Salve Regina by renowned soprano Jacqueline Porter, and selected choruses from Handel’s Messiah, sung by the entire MCM voice department ‒ approximately 85 students ‒ who were interspersed throughout the audience of over 1,000 people in the Cathedral. This was followed by a narration by The Very Reverend Dr Andreas Loewe, Dean of Melbourne, and Heather Fletcher. The text of the narration, prepared by Loewe, offered an account of Jesus’ final days from John the Baptist, and one of the women who had attended the crucifixion and burial. The production concluded with the performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s (1710–1736) Stabat Mater by a group of fourteen singers, with Heather Fletcher as the woman commentator singing the alto solos and then seven sopranos and six mezzos each in a solo or some other special role, e.g. one performed the role of Mary.

The pastiche approach used in the production was very much in keeping with how Easter celebrations were performed in the eighteenth century, and each of the musical works have their own long and varied reception histories. While Handel is best known for his operas, oratorios and orchestral music, the smaller liturgical works such as his setting of the Marian antiphon Salve Regina contain moments of beautiful, intimate and expressive vocal writing. The work was composed along with two motets for devotions on Trinity Sunday in the private chapel of Marchese Francesco Maria Ruspoli at Vignanello, at the beginning of Handel’s ‘Italian period’, and each of these works includes vivid word-painting and artful interweaving of voices and instruments in rich contrapuntal textures. The Salve Regina especially contains daring and dark harmonic turns which must have created an eerie and intense atmosphere in his aristocratic patron’s chapel. The current production sought to reimagine this eerie intensity by making use of the full space within the Cathedral; for the Salve Regina, soprano Jacqueline Porter was placed in the centre of the audience, clearly visible though cast in shadow, highlighting the loneliness of her desperate plea for mercy to the Virgin Mary, ‘mourning and weeping in this valley of tears’.

Silhouette of Jacqueline Porter, © Sarah Walker
Silhouette of Jacqueline Porter, © Sarah Walker

 

After the Dean’s narration, excerpts from Handel’s oratorio Messiah then followed ‒ a work which has attained a level of fame beyond almost all other works in Western music history. While the genre of oratorio is ostensibly a sacred one (the libretto for Messiah is taken from Scripture), Handel’s ‘English oratorio’ brings together, in a remarkable synthesis, elements found in the English masque and anthem, the French classical drama, the Italian opera seria and oratorio volgare, and the German Protestant oratorio, with airs and recitatives juxtaposed with powerful and moving choruses in constantly changing textures. Three such choruses were selected for the current production: ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, ‘Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ and ‘And with His stripes we are healed’, which are the first three choruses from the second part of the tripartite work. In the current production, the choir stood up to sing from within the audience, immersing them in the intense and powerful sound of Handel’s baroque polyphony. Throughout the performance, the enactment of Christ’s scourging and crucifixion unfolded.

Lastly, Pergolesi’s setting of the hymn Stabat Mater was performed by Mary and her twelve followers. This work helped the composer achieve almost universal posthumous fame (he died from tuberculosis at the age of only twenty-six after numerous struggles with illness). After it was first published in London in 1749, it became the most frequently printed single work in the eighteenth century. The Stabat Mater, originally for two solo voices and strings, displays one of the earliest known applications of the expressive ‘galant’ sensibility to sacred music, with its melodic simplicity, light textures and immediacy of appeal, and the use of such styles in the sacred context initially stirred considerable controversy in Italy and beyond. In this performance, the solos were distributed between Mary and her followers who moved through the audience, eventually drawing attention to the front of the Cathedral where Christ, performed by Tim Rutty, had been crucified on the cross. Tracing the text of the Stabat Mater, including the death, entombment and resurrection, the moving music and drama climaxed in a stunning and elegant display of athletic skill, with Rutty slowly ascending up a corde lisse in a depiction of Christ’s ascent to Heaven. This provided a modern take on the sixteenth-century German tradition where, on the feast of the Ascension, an image of Christ, accompanied by angels and the Holy Spirit, was drawn up through the church tower.

Tim Rutty ascends the corde lisse as Jesus. © Sarah Walker.
Tim Rutty ascends the corde lisse as Jesus. © Sarah Walker.

This powerful combination of music, drama and dance was a quintessential example of the ways that CHE’s Performance Program, led by Davidson, has been able to facilitate exposure to, and reflection upon, emotional messages of the past through performance, allowing them to resonate with contemporary audiences as they consider their significance for twenty-first century Australia.

Frederic Kiernan is a PhD candidate in Musicology at The University of Melbourne and a Research Assistant at the Melbourne node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions.

Jane Davidson is a Professor of Creative and Performing Arts (Music) in the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at The University of Melbourne. In her role as Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions she oversees industry partnerships, media and marketing, education and outreach and matters relating to intellectual property for CHE. She is also leader of the Performance Program, interrogating how emotions were performed and expressed in pre-modern dramatic, literary, artistic and musical performances. Jane’s own CHE-related research projects explore: i) how music was used historically and is used today for emotional regulation from personal through to collective ceremonial activities; ii) how emotional affect can be achieved through historically informed opera production practices, employing reflective practice techniques.

 

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