There is a deep sense of culmination and finality when we discuss the last works of the great Masters. 

Mozart turned spiritual and prepared his own (unfinished) Requiem; while Schubert manifested his melancholic state in mind in the gloomy song-cycle Winterreise. Mahler thought he escaped the curse of the ninth with his elegiac Symphony No. 9, which conductor Otto Klemperer claimed to be “not only his last but also his greatest achievement.”

That comment would definitely apply to the Renaissance Master Orlando di Lasso (also known as Roland/Orlande de Lassus) (1530-1594). He channeled his pain and suffering, together with everything he had learned throughout his life, into his final work, a colossal madrigali spirituali titled Lagrime di San Pietro (Tears of Saint Peter), composed less than a month before his death.

The work, often called the greatest representation of Renaissance polyphony, was dedicated to Pope Clement VIIIin 1594.

For Lagrime, Lasso set 20 poems of Luigi Tansillo (1510-1568) depicting the stages of grief that St. Peter went through after his denial of Jesus prior to the crucifixion. Lasso concludes the cycle with a Latin motet by the 13th-century French poet Philippe de Greve, this time representing the final word from Jesus himself (“Vide Homo, quae pro te patior”/“See, O man, how I su?er for you”).

Lagrime is also full of numerological symbolism; particularly the number “7” (representing 7 days of creation and also 7 Deadly Sins) and the number “3” (for the Trinity, and also the number of times St. Peter denies Jesus). The piece was written for 7 voices, and the whole cycle comprises a total of 21 (3 x 7) stanzas.

As part of their world tour, Los Angeles Master Chorale, conducted by their artistic director Grant Gershon, presented Lagrime di San Pietro at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall on Friday (5/17), in a highly stylized staging by the visionary director Peter Sellars.

The production was originally premiered in 2016 at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and it had been performed in places as far as Australia and Mexico, and it will travel to London, Paris and Salzburg in coming months.

It was easy for me to see why it had been so successful, as the piece and the staging transcended the confines of its spiritual context and translated into powerful statement of personal responsibilities and dealing with the past; all of these were highly pertinent to the cold and often cruel world we are living in.

Through a contemporary lens, Sellars presented the work as a series of internal turmoil of a grieving person rather than literal translation of the texts. This reflected beautifully on every singer on stage. Gershon and Sellars decided to beef up the seven voices by assigning the people per voice, to follow along the symbolism of the piece, resulted in the a cappella voices sounding bigger and fuller than any existing recordings of Lagrime di San Pietro.

Dressed by costume designer Danielle Domingue in various shades of blue and grey, those 21 singers used gestures and movements to represent the words they were singing.

The movements were not always synchronized, even among the three people singing the same tune, however they were very well coordinated, obviously as a result of long hours of rehearsal. While not all gestures were exactly to the point—particularly when they sang about the bows targeting the chest in second poem while channeling Celine Dion—the movement did feel very heartfelt, and the stages of grief reflected well in their faces.

It helped greatly that James F . Ingalls’ excellent lighting worked as spotlight to illuminate the actions happening at any given time. The beautiful lightwork can be seen in the video of the 10th stanza (“Come falda di neve”/”Like a snowflake”) from their previous show below. In this video, the stage was bathed in blue to represent winter time, and it shifted into bright white light as they sang about spring.

What truly mesmerized me was the total commitment of the 21 singers to this production. Lasso set the music syllabically and it is entirely through-composed without any repetitions and redundancies. The music itself is full of contrapuntal intricacy and chromatism. The fact that the singers performed without score on top of all the movements was a testament to this dedication. Even Gershon who conducted the Chorale beautifully joined in!

There was a major shift in direction starting the 16th stanza (“O vita troppo rea”). As St. Peter wished to die and leave the earth, the Chorale went to sit on a half-circular row of chairs placed on the stage to sing.

This did create a clearer, even sounding purer, voice from the Chorale, but I couldn’t help thinking about the motivation for such changes. In fact, I was afraid that doing so might actually undermine the whole staging up to that point (as I could see some of the audience preferred them to just sit and sing!)

That went on for the next couple of stanzas, culminating at the end of 20thstanza, where the lighting went almost completely dark when St. Peter wished he had no life’s shadow!

As mentioned above, the last stanza was a motet with Jesus’ words, unlike the other stanzas. Sellars staged the scene as a reconciliation one, where the singers divided in 2 rows, and both rows were approaching each other as they sang, ending with a hug between each pair. This was truly haunting to see, a kind of happy ending to the drama.

This was truly a major achievement for Los Angeles Master Chorale. In the extended program for prior performances, Gershon noted that

What we came to realize as we all worked together is that Lasso was delving into much more universal themes surrounding growing old, losing the things and people that we care about, experiencing extreme shame and regret but also some possibility of benediction. We all came away from the initial performances of this work convinced of two things: that Lagrime di San Pietro is one of the towering masterpieces of Western music, and that this project represents for each of us some of the most important work that we have ever embarked upon. This is a piece that people need to hear, to see, and to experience.

I couldn’t agree more with the above statement. Whether or not you think the staging make sense (I did, by the way), there is no denying that the power of the piece will engulf, and likely transform, you!

Photos: Tao Ruspoli, Los Angeles Master Chorale