Brett Umlauf, Amber Youell, Kelly Savage

What happens when a group of music scholars/singers get together to produce and perform Pergolesi’s 1736 setting of Stabat Mater? I learned the surprising answer to this question on Thursday, courtesy of Morningside Opera.

Performing at the Lower East Side’s Dixon Place, a venue which encourages “challenging and questioning work,” MO’s no holds barred staging definitely felt more like performance art than a typical opera production. This combined with projections of the two singers’ semi-nude bodies at intervals throughout the show prompted the audience member sitting next to me to whisper “oooh, it’s like art.”

The singing, as always with MO, was both beautiful and true to the style, Brett’s visceral soprano juxtaposed with Amber’s velvety alto. The staging, on the other hand, while equally well done, did its best to parody the style. Each phrase of the stabat mater hymn (which describes Mary’s suffering during Jesus’ crucifixion) was intricately choreographed, and had Amber and Brett doing a kind of reverse striptease, going from barely dressed to wearing ornate dresses and wigs, as seen in the photo above of a scene about three-quarters of the way into the performance. As Amber–a card-carrying musicologist–puts it in her program note:

“…several aspects of the motet present immediate problems to the interpreters…some of the music clashes inexplicably with the text; cheerful, almost comic melodies and jaunty accompaniments set words like ‘he mourns and suffers, while his mother watches the anguish of the dying son’…Also problematic for a sacred setting…is the sensual nature of the music…Religious worship becomes an act of passion and pleasure in listening to Pergolesi’s setting. Is taking pleasure in a woman’s suffering an act of violence?”

Thusly, MO’s interpretation mirrors the mood of the music, not the text, creating a combination of coquettish humor and melodrama (for some of Pergolesi’s music does reflect the horrors of the hymn). In a particularly moving moment, Amber picks up an apparently dead Brett and lays her on the floor, the end of Amber’s phrase melting into sobs as she kneels over the body. Next minute, the music is bright and dance-like again, so Brett pops up from the floor and she and Amber wave enthusiastically at each other in greeting and embrace.

One of my favorite aspects of the performance was the emphasis on how much discomfort really went into being a fashionable lady in the 18th century. As Brett and Amber pulled on tight stockings and garters, pranced around in 3-inch stilettos, and laced each other up in constrictive corsets–not to mention the mile high wigs and cumbersome underskirt hoops–the link between the perverse pleasure-in-pain of the music and the women’s clothing of the time became apparent.

Be sure to catch MO’s next production, Weimar Flute, this spring.