Ecstatic Motion and Emotion
Pietro Mestastasio’s text set to Josef Mysliveček’s music results in the superb La Passione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo.
If there is a central theme to Baroque art, it is the glorification of the dramatic moment. Baroque church altars are set like stage scenes, with angels and dignitaries surrounding the main figures and forming their enraptured audience.
As for the main figures, they are caught at the moment of crisis—of decision—where their fate and that of their drama will be decided. The frozen stone and canvas of the whole is like a snapshot of ecstatic motion—the writhing, turning figures expressing the inner emotional turmoil of decision and acceptance.
Pietro Mestastasio’s Passion text brings this style-form to the story of the Crucifixion. Instead of an extended retelling of all the events, the action is condensed to a single encounter: that of Peter with the witnesses of the Passion. Thus, the text begins with Peter’s recalling his own abandonment (and denial) of Christ and wondering if Christ still lives. His confrontation with John, Joseph of Arimathea, and Mary Magdalene is also his moment of decision. At the beginning, he is overcome by remorse and shame for his denial. By the end, he is ready to bear witness to Him. What transforms him is the account of the Passion. Its emotional turmoil purifies and overcomes his own.
What we witness here is the Baroque-Christian reinterpretation of Aristotle’s theory that, in watching a tragedy and experiencing both pity and fear, our own soul undergoes a purification. For Mestastasio, the pity comes in the retelling of Christ’s suffering, the fear through the dreadful consequences that will befall those who fail to see Christ’s divinity—in the first instance, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who saw Jesus’s miracles, but refused to see his divinity. As Mestastasio has Peter say, “If the pupil of the closed eye fails to see, the fault is not the sun’s but the eye’s.” For this fault, as scenes foretelling the fall and sacking of Jerusalem make clear, the inhabitants will pay.
Whatever we think of such theology, in the hands of Baroque masters like Mestastasio and Josef Mysliveček, the theatrical effect is overwhelming. Mysliveček is, by far, the greatest Czech Baroque composer; and, as his setting of Mestastasio’s Passion text makes clear, he is a complete master of the idiom. The artful intermingling of recitatives and arias brings out the full emotional force of experiencing of the passion. His music makes emotionally immediate both the sorrows of Peter and Magdalene for their sins and their sense that these sins both contributed to the suffering of Christ and were redeemed by these same sufferings.
Václav Luks’ conducting of Collegium 1704 and Collegium Vocale 1704 for the Prague Spring concert May 29 was fully in tune with the emotional register of Mysliveček’s music. For the audience, the overall effect of the superb singing of the principles was overwhelming. Multiple curtain calls and a standing ovation expressed their grateful response to a remarkable performance.
That we were able to hear it at all is equally remarkable. Only two copies of Mysliveček’s oratorio, first performed in 1773, have survived.
If ever a performance deserved a wider audience, this qualifies. — oo
– James Mensch