The world premiere of a cantata titled Holy Women by New York composer Robert Sirota, President of Manhattan School of Music, took place on Saturday evening, November 6, 2010, at St. Bede’s Chapel on the campus of Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy (WFHA) in Greenwich.
The libretto by the composer’s wife, the Rev. Canon Victoria Sirota, Canon Pastor and Vicar of the Congregation of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York, and former Chaplain of the American Guild of Organists, is based on the lives of women saints depicted in the windows of St. Bede’s Chapel. Stage direction was by Dona D. Vaughan, Artistic Director of Opera Programs at Manhattan School of Music.
The performance was conducted by the composer and the singers and instrumentalists were faculty members and graduates of Manhattan School of Music, with the exception Victoria Sirota, who played the organ score on the recently restored Skinner organ in the chapel.
The cantata was commissioned by Palladium Musicum, Inc., a Greenwich based non-profit organization led by Marie Williams “devoted to celebrating classical music as an expression of culture, the arts, and the sacred, experienced in an intimate setting” to quote their mission statement. Palladium Musicum has led the revival of St. Bede’s Chapel as a performance venue in Greenwich and the concert on Saturday night was the concluding event of its first season of concerts.
The campus was originally the site of Rosemary Hall, a girls’ school which merged with the all male Choate School in 1971; the chapel was originally used for daily services by the school community. Consecrated in 1909 by the Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut, clergy from nearby Christ Church Greenwich lead the services. The Chapel, which seats approximately 150 persons, was designed in the Middle English Gothic style by Greenwich resident Theodore Blake who was a partner in the venerable New York architectural firm Carrère & Hastings.
The two main stained glass windows at either end of the chapel, over the stage and the opposite west end, contain lancets featuring nine women saints: Theresa of Avila, Walburga, Catherine of Sienna, Ursula, Barbara, Agnes, Anne, Elizabeth, and Mary, and it is the lives of these saints that serve as inspiration for the music and poetry of the cantata. The chapel has been deconsecrated and currently functions as a gathering space for various activities at WFHA, whose board of trustees, in conjunction with Palladium Musicum, has worked to make the chapel available as a performance space in Greenwich. The chapel also contains an organ built by the Skinner Organ Company of Boston, which has recently been restored by the Foley-Baker Company of Tolland,CT.
The cantata is scored for nine female singers in the roles of the saints and a chamber orchestra of seven: violin, cello, flute, oboe, bassoon, guitar, and organ. The nine saints are presented in groups of three, in reverse chronological order from the historically oldest to youngest: mystics (Walburga, Theresa, Catherine), martyrs (Ursula, Barbara, Agnes), and mothers (Anne, Elizabeth, and Mary). Following a prologue by Theresa of Avila, the nine saints formed a liturgical procession, from the front of the chapel along the two side aisles to the back, and then up the center aisle to the stage-platform (formerly chancel and altar) in a processional hymn evoking mediaeval pageantry, complete with finger cymbals punctuating the rhythmic patterns. The dramatic action throughout the work was enhanced considerably by the skillful staging which took full advantage of the spacious yet intimate chapel which was architecturally inspired by mediaeval antiquity and conceived for worship.
The lives of the saints are presented in first person prose sung by each individual saint, as well as in dialogue, or conversation with others in the form of duets or trios, so the singers are heard individually, as well as in ensemble. There are also times when all nine saints sing together as a choral schola, advancing the action and providing commentary in much the same manner as the dramatic chorus in classical literature.
Likewise, the instrumental writing contains solos as well as ensemble support to the singers. And in the case of a guitar prelude, and an organ interlude, these solos could even be excerpted as stand alone works.
The performance was to world class performance standards, and was unusually polished for a first performance, portions of which were completed only weeks before. There was no sense or urgency or insecurity such as frequently mar a premiere performance, and it is therefore difficult to single out any individual solo over another. Particularly memorable was the guitar solo played by Jordan Dodson, which was rich and vibrant and filled the space with sound. Also, the opening monologue of St. Theresa sung by Margaret Peterson in a clear mezzo voice, was well suited to the quasi liturgical setting at hand: not exactly straight toned, but devoid of any overt emotional color. The flute solo in the narrative of St. Barbara played by Christopher James was virtuosic and, played standing while the other instrumentalists remained seated, took its rightful place in the staged drama of the work.
The tonal language of the cantata is accessible and diatonic, but in no way stodgy or imitative, although there are obvious mediaeval influences and borrowings such as the two metrical hymns (opening and closing processions), the quoting of the chant Veni Creator Spiritus, and the occasional use of the guitar in a quasi-continuo fashion, reminiscent of the use of the theorbo in the operas of Monteverdi. And the use of the organ is inevitably associated with the music of the church as it evolved through history.
On the other side of the historic spectrum, the final Magnificat is the most overtly 21st century portion of the cantata—an entirely original, energetic and personal representation of the text quite unlike the very many extant settings by composers from all eras. Upon their first visit to the chapel, Victoria immediately noticed that in the iconography that Mary looked across the chapel to Elizabeth in the opposite window, and she and Robert each immediately recognized that the work should conclude with the Magnificat, Mary’s song sung to her cousin Elizabeth upon learning that she is to bear the Christ Child, as recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel—the only portion of the cantata’s text not original to it. As it turns out it was the last portion of the work to be composed even though it was the first conceived.
This cantata is a multi media production inspired by history (in the lives of the saints), art (in the form of the stained glass windows), and architecture (in the form of the chapel space for which it was conceived), and it utilizes music, words, and motion in perfect proportion. The ending was particularly memorable: following the closing hymn, the house lights dimmed, and the two main windows, illuminated from the outside, made the final statement for several moments before the applause began.
This work deserves to be compared with and performed along side the similar chamber operas of Britten and Menotti.