Baroque Passion Credited To Rossi Is Demonic Drama

Haymarket Opera explored one of the earliest known Passions of Christ, attributed to Luigi Rossi, at Chicago Temple.
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – A soul-searching Pontius Pilate contends with an angry throng. A gleeful chorus of demons oppose a beseeching Virgin Mary. These confrontations provide the compelling dramatic formula behind the Oratorio per la settimana santa (Oratorio for Holy Week), one of the earliest known settings of the Passion of Christ. This rare work, offered by a first-rate group of singers and musicians assembled by the Haymarket Opera Company, made for a highly moving experience on March 8 at the Chicago Temple, a 500-seat Gothic church on the first floor of a 1924 office building designed by Holabird & Roche.

Librettist Giulio Cesare Raggioli’s libretto includes a chorus of demons.

No, there are no demons in the New Testament accounts of the Passion, but according to the program notes for this presentation, such an inclusion was not uncommon in Roman culture at the time. The vividly conceived libretto by Giulio Cesare Raggioli seizes upon these denizens of the darkness, powerfully setting them against the solitary, grieving Virgin Mary. Although the oratorio (circa 1640) has been attributed to Luigi Rossi, the most famous musician supported by the Barberini family in whose archives this oratorio was preserved, it is not known for certain that he wrote it. Whoever was responsible, it is a taut, smartly constructed work that maximizes the emotional potency of the two central conflicts and supplies no shortage of striking vocal writing.

The performance, which will be repeated on March 10 at Chicago’s Church of the Atonement, is the third offering in Haymarket’s third-annual Lenten oratorio series. The one-hour program took place at 5:45 p.m. and was meant to be an after-work stop, allowing downtown commuters to still get home at an early hour or go out to dinner afterward. Founded in 2011, Haymarket is gaining national attention as one of just three North American companies (along with the Boston Early Music Festival and Opera Atelier in Toronto) devoted to presenting 17th– and 18th-century operas with both period instruments and staging.

Craig Trompeter, Haymarket Opera’s founder, leads the period instrument ensemble.

For Haymarket’s intimate take on this oratorio, the company assembled a seven-piece orchestra led by its founder and music director, Craig Trompeter, from the bass violin, a 16th– and 17th-century ancestor of the modern cello. This fine period-instrument ensemble combined two Baroque violins with a handsomely amber-toned basso continuo that included the bass violin, theorbo, and lirone, or lira da gamba, another 16th– and 17th-century instrument that has between 9 and 16 strings and is played like a cello. The small, nimble group could hardly have been more responsive to the vocalists, almost breathing in tandem with them.

The six singers (four men and two women) served as both chorus and soloists, and in this contained setting they supplied more than enough weight and force. The ensemble highlights were the chorus sections that ended both parts of the oratorio, which was performed without intermission. At the culmination of the Prima Parte, six demons reveled in their evil in an amusing, multi-part chorus, singing “O happy lies, go forth in triumph!” Particularly notable was the apt call-and-respond setting of the words “Let joy resound with festive echo.” The oratorio ended with an extraordinary madrigal, with the singers beautifully blending as they gave voice to the faithful in praise of Christ’s sacrifice.

Carrie Hemmeman Shaw sang spellbinding arias as the Virgin Mary.

The clear star of this performance was Carrie Henneman Shaw, an early and contemporary music specialist from St. Paul, Minn., who delivered one spellbinding aria after another as the Virgin Mary. With a lightness and a kind of floating vocal transparency, she embraced the vulnerability and humanity of this saintly figure, strikingly conveying her palpable pain and plaintive pleas for pity. Baritone Mischa Bouvier,  a strong singer with a good dramatic sense, delighted in the self-satisfied smugness of one of the two solo demons, effectively animating his villainous arias. Also deserving note were countertenor Drew Minter and soprano Kaitlin Foley.

Almost immediately after concluding the oratorio, the performers launched into Rossi’s Un peccator pentito (A Repentant Sinner), a short setting of a poem by Giovanni Lotti. As thematically fitting as this inclusion might have been (Les Arts Florissant pairs the two as well on its 1989 recording of the oratorio), the main work, even if it did not run a full hour, was more than substantial enough to stand alone. And it would have been nice to have its sounds lingering in the ears as one departed the church.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.