Pacific MusicWorks, the adventurous Seattle-based arts group that likes to give “a contemporary voice to early music,” really knows how to whet the appetite. Their winter program, which takes place this Friday and Saturday evening (Jan. 13-14) at St. James Cathedral, will explore an alternative form of musical drama that evolved within the framework of sacred music just as opera was emerging in the secular world.
Titled Carissimi Oratorios: Prophets, the program centers on three oratorios from the early baroque by 17th-century Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi. A concluding work by his pupil Marc-Antoine Charpentier illustrating Carissimi’s legacy will also be included. But instead of merely being sung, the oratorios will be performed in a staging by Toronto-based choreographer and director Guillaume Bernardi, a baroque specialist who has won international acclaim for his European stage productions of oratorios in collaboration with the likes of René Jacobs.
The oratorio is best known as it was shaped by composers like Handel: in the form of a choral epic that really represented opera in disguise, but without the fussy costumes and pricey sets. More than a century before Handel’s great sequence of mature oratorios, though, Carissimi was writing modest chamber dramas actually intended to be used during liturgical rituals in the Lenten season. The word “oratorio” in fact suggests this religious function. (It refers both to the prayer chapels where such pieces were originally sung and to elite religious societies.) Bernardi’s staging will be in the round on raised platforms on St. James’ central altar.
As chapelmaster in Rome, Carissimi had access to the cream of the cream of performers. Pilgrims were occasionally permitted to attend the special Lenten services in the oratories, and one of them reported that the music was “unlike anything else on this Earth,” notes music historian JoAnn Taricani.
Carissimi’s sacred chamber dramas are drawn from Old Testament stories. The program’s first half concentrates on the (appropriately Lenten) theme of sacrifice shared by two biblical narratives: an oratorio on the story of Abraham and Isaac, followed by a more elaborate one about the warrior Jephtha (spelled “Jephte” in the score) from the Book of Judges, whose pledged sacrificial victim turns out to be his daughter. For the second half, on the other hand, Bernardi has paired works meant to play up a basic dramatic contrast. Carissimi’s Job “never renounces God, not even in the hardest trials,” whereas the final oratorio — Charpentier’s Le Reniement de St. Pierre (“St. Peter’s Denial”), which was inspired by his teacher’s Jepthe — revolves around the dramatic moment when St. Peter “discovers his own frailty” as he betrays Jesus.
Recent years have seen a plethora of stagings of later baroque oratorios, and even of Bach’s Passions, as full-on dramas. But staging the first-generation oratorios by Carissimi and his peers, says Bernardi, requires “a performance mode that takes into account the religious dimension of these pieces and that also create a satisfying evening of music and of spiritual reflection.”
It all makes sense as a next step for PMW. Artistic director Stephen Stubbs has spent his career exploring the wealth of Renaissance and baroque forms of music drama in collaborations with visionary contemporary artists. After their presentations of secular and sacred music by Claudio Monteverdi, opera’s founding father, this focus on the less-well-known format pioneered by Monteverdi’s younger contemporary promises to be enlightening.
PMW’s executive director Matthew White explains that even within the framework of sacred liturgy, Carissimi’s oratorios are “very similar in terms of drama” to parallel developments in the secular genre of opera. He also points out that PMW’s staging represents an ideal way to balance local talent with visiting international artists like Bernardi. The performing forces are chamber-sized, with a handful of familiar Seattle instrumentalists (including Stubbs on lute, guitar, and harpsichord) and a mix of locals and visiting guest artists as the eight singers who will take on individual roles and also perform as the chorus. White singles out the final chorus of St. Pierre, which was modeled afterJepthe, as one of the most moving pieces of early music he knows.
To further enhance this exploration of sacred music drama by Carissimi and Charpentier, St. James Cathedral is hosting an exhibit titled The Spirit of Prophecy in the chapel. It will feature works — oils, woodcuts, mixed-media sculpture — by five contemporary artists who “are known for addressing spiritual themes.” Several of the artists will be on hand for Friday’s concert.
If you go: Carissimi Oratorios: Prophets will be performed at 8 p.m. on both Friday and Saturday, Jan. 13 and 14, at St. James Cathedral, 804 Ninth Avenue. 206-913-2073. Tickets: $40.