Mothers are, by nature, meant to die before their children do. So when the opposite occurs, the pain carries a sense of dread disorder – known to Catholics from searing images of Mary at the cross, and from the Stabat Mater, the long, 20-stanza poem that depicts this holiest of mothers standing witness to the execution of her son.
It’s a disturbing text in which the poet – whose identity has never been conclusively established but was probably a 13th-century Franciscan – piles on the agony before asking to share Mary’s pain as a means of access to God’s grace. And at the end, he begs her to assist his path to paradise – which turns the text into a vision of the life of faith with Mary as a source of help and comfort.
The Stabat Mater has been set to music through the centuries by a broad sweep of composers: Josquin, Haydn, Szymanowski, Howells, Poulenc… For the average listener, the standout settings are baroque, by Pergolesi and Vivaldi. And the latter of those has occupied my mind during the past weeks, thanks to an extraordinary new recording by the countertenor of the moment, Jakub Józef Orliński.
If you haven’t heard Orliński, he’s the culmination of a process that suggests a fast-track evolution of the human voice. It wasn’t long ago that countertenors required special pleading in the vocal world. Their high, falsetto sound was thin and weak: acceptable in church, but not robust enough for opera houses where, from the mid-20th century, they’d started to appear. But then, with training, these weak voices grew more powerful – and dazzling. Serious stars emerged, able to hold their own against the operatic thrust of tenors, basses and sopranos. Orliński is the latest – the new countertenor king.
Not only does he sound good, he has fashion-model looks, he’s cool and he can act as well as dance – a comprehensive set of talents on display in London last month when he starred alongside Joyce DiDonato in the Royal Opera staging of Handel’s Theodora. In short, he’s a publicist’s gift.
But he’s also imaginative, intelligent and entrepreneurial. And his new enterprise is this Vivaldi Stabat Mater, which comes as a double-package: a straightforward CD combined with a non-straightforward DVD that isn’t just a film of him singing in concert but one of him acting to his own soundtrack in what plays out like a stylish, if surreally baffling, Netflix thriller. To be blunt, it doesn’t have a lot to do with Mary at the cross, but it is dense with Christian symbolism that becomes a gory riff on what it is to suffer, to be outcast and alone.
As Orliński told me when we met for coffee recently: “A subtitle for the Stabat Mater is ‘Way of Empathy’, and that’s the line we take in the film. Something shocking happens, I am witness to it, and I then go on a journey of suffering as I try to make sense of this dreadful event. There are things in the film that may cause controversy, and people will interpret them in their own way. But the symbolism does connect with the origins of the piece, even if it goes beyond them. As a person I am spiritual. I have a big space in my heart for the Church.”
Orliński’s spirituality was instilled from childhood, growing up in Catholic Poland where, he says, “I went to Mass every Sunday, though I have to say I don’t do that now.”
His singing started in choirs “as a bass-baritone, which was my natural range until a choir I sang with needed higher voices and held a lottery to decide who should sing falsetto. I lost. But then I decided I actually liked it up there.”
As for Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, it was a key work in his artistic development. “I loved this piece from when I was very young; and when I finally got the chance to sing it, as part of a church music festival, it was the moment I realised I might have what it took to be a professional singer. So it’s been important for me. And when the possibility of a recording came up, I wanted to do something special with it.”
It became his lockdown project, filmed on location around Krakow, with clever editing that allows him to sing (to the accompaniment of instrumental group Capella Cracoviensis, in a dynamic studio acoustic) as he’s chased by men with guns through forests and into cold, dark streets before finding refuge in a church.
Images aside, the music has to be what ultimately sells this project, and it does. It’s an assertively strong reading, in-your-face and vivid but still pure, with the stylistic cleanliness Vivaldi needs. You couldn’t say it was devotional, but it’s affecting. And in total it may change how you perceive the Stabat Mater – in a possibly unorthodox but probably rewarding way.
Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater is out now on Erato
This article first appeared in the Easter 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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