Tenebrae III


I didn’t go down to Melbourne for the Opera Australia Annual General Meeting on Thursday (short report here). Instead, I found myself at an afternoon callover in the District Court before the Judicial Registrar – the sort of job you find yourself doing when others have gone away for Easter. After, on the way home, I dropped into the Fish Markets, by then practically closed, and picked up a dozen scallops on the shell and a nice looking “Sashimi Snapper,” whatever that exactly is.

Being involved in religious ceremony as a chorister rather destroys your sense of mystery: you see too much of the stage machinery, and become impatient as a mere member of the congregation. The last time I went to church other than for a funeral was to Saint James King Street on Good Friday three years ago. I found I could hardly bear it. That was when I definitively realised that I had become post-religious.

Despite that, Good Friday is one of my favourite days. I like its quietness and its sombreness – a bit of a piece with my preference for slow movements, I suppose. And of course, it is a big day for religious art, especially choral music. For some years in the later 80s and early 90s, I liked to have a fishy feast followed by evening attendance at the Sydney [then, Sydney University] Chamber Choir’s Good Friday concerts at the Great Hall at the University of Sydney. In those days this was almost literally the only show in town, and there was even something rather austere about queueing up out the front of the hall beforehand on the darkened campus. Even then, my motives were primarily aesthetic: I deeply disapproved when Etienne Chin, a Sydney music student who had got religion, yelled out “Alleluia!” in the pause before the applause after the last chorale of Bach’s St John Passion.

At some point, the Chamber Choir discontinued its Great Hall concerts – possibly because of fire regulations, which were always an encumbrance. If so, that is pretty ridiculous since graduation ceremonies and other non public entertainments continue unabated. They also stopped performing on Good Friday (maybe because of overtime issues at other venues) and, for that matter, my own allegiance faded.

So, this Good Friday, after a pre-concert penitential repast of half a dozen scallops each (cooked in a manner faintly resembling Coquilles Saint Jaques), D and I set off for Carriageworks in Wilson Street, Darlington, for the Song Company’s Tenebrae III. I missed the first two installments of this project at the Sydney Town Hall in 2005 and 2006 (some clips of that here and here), and the projected completion and performance of all three parts in 2007 never occurred. I’m not sure why that is but there are muted allusions to disruptions at the Song Company itself and in the meantime the collaboration with Force Majeure (the original dance contributors) seems to have dissolved.

The concept of the Tenebrae series, loosely stated, is a performance of the Gesualdo settings of the responsories for the Tenebrae services (offices in Holy Week where the lights are, traditionally, extinguished) as well as the associated plainchant settings of the lamentations of Jeremiah by singers, moving (in singer-friendly ways) together with three dancers, who obviously are allowed rather more extremity of movement, as well as a discreet amount of soundscape and some lighting effects. There are three Tenebrae services: Tenebrae III used the responsories for the final, Holy Saturday, service.

The space used was the quite vast foyerish area of Carriageworks. A single row of chairs was set up round the perimeter (there were two rows at one end). There was some delay before we were allowed in as the concrete floor apparently needed conditioning in some way. As we entered, the singers were already leaning against various industrial pillars, and shortly after that the three dancers (two men and a woman) started a kind of running bungee jump – the woman running between the two men and swinging around them and returning, running faster and faster between them as they moved further apart along the long axis of the space, finally collapsing on an spot at one end which was lit from beneath the floor. There was a roar of soundscape. Then, entering from from “offstage” one of the singers (call him the lector) started singing the plainchant. The acoustic was luxuriously bathroomish. The lector was finally joined by the other three men. Then, (beginning with the lector, who sang the opening line) the responsory, now polyphonic with the women also singing, started. The dancers started moving. We were off.

At this point, my patience to give a detailed account is exhausted, and even then has probably outlasted my skill. The singers moved around the space (important in order to fill it and to reach all the audience) and certain key gestures (such as the rushing one-by-one of the dancers to the under-floor-lit spot) were repeated.

I’m not sure what, if anything, many of the dance movements were supposed to mean, other than vaguely stylised grief. That is my only grudge with the presentation: the program notes referred rather learnedly to the various responsories, but nowhere was there a list of them, let alone a text. Some of them were familiar to me through the Latin, but not all of them. I understand why they didn’t want an audience peering into their program notes, but perhaps some information could have been provided outside beforehand as more of a guide. As it was, I was reminded a little of the furniture and other objects at the end of the film Summer Hours – stuck in a museum and passed only half-comprehendingly by the multitudes. Ironically, as I’ve already suggested, the museum is probably where I am happiest to meet religion – and I expect in the audience present I was far from alone in this. So you can see I am having it both ways: the abstraction may have meant that I was less moved than I otherwise would have been, but it is also possible that it spared me embarrassment, a bit like the way some (not all) opera in a foreign language frees you from the silliness the words if sung in English.

That last paragraph has come out sounding like a complaint, which it isn’t really, because I found the experience absolutely compelling. Part of it was the shared concentration of the (my guess) 250 people seated round the perimeter of the space in shared engrossment (not a cough or snuffle), and also the effect of the singers moving together and liberated from behind their music. It is a while since I have heard the Song Company in the flesh, and I have forgotten how good they can be. In fact, I think they have got better. And the Gesualdo is musically very striking.

We sat near a door, which though closed, let in through the cracks the occasional waft of woodfire smoked air. Unfortunately, it also let in the intermittent chugging of a refrigerator van tethered to a power pole in anticipation of the next day’s Eveleigh produce markets, but I overcame this.

Our neighbours were traditionalists. They thought the choreography boringly repetitive and much preferred the Tenebrae when the Song Company had sung them in the Rose Bay chapel, extinguishing the candles one by one. They said that was more moving. I am sure I would also have liked this, but I’m not sure I would have gone all the way to Rose Bay to see it. I’m relatively indifferent to dance, but I thought the repetition served some function, as did the dance itself. The whole piece is unlikely to have been nearly as effective if we simply had singers walking and moving around that vast space.

The dancers certainly helped D, who is not so keen on Renaissance polyphony, and likes to tell the tale of the two elderly ladies he sat next to at a Tallis Consort concert, who told him “We love this music” only to promptly fall asleep. The Tenebrae program and publicity featured a rather eroticised naked upper torso shot of one of the male dancers. D gave me an appreciative nudge when the men (rather belatedly, in his view, I think) finally got round to taking their shirts off.

The whole thing was over in about 50 minutes. I wished it could have gone on longer.

I was moved – not so much by any particular moment, but by the whole as a kind of meditative experience. The after-effects of this persisted as we went out (past the annoyingly chugging van) into the dark and wood-smoke scented Wilson Street. Back home, we continued our seasonal observance by having the fish for dinner.

I returned on Saturday night for the final performance.

As can happen when you do this, I didn’t quite manage to recapture that first fine careless etc. The audience was much smaller (I was told it was an additional performance) which inevitably diminished the sense of occasion. Thankfully, the refrigeration van was gone, though there were a couple of coughers. I’m not sure if the singing was quite as good as on Friday. More likely, knowing what was coming, I was more calculating in my own response – more able to see through the striking first impressions to how they were actually achieved: instead of the singers bursting spontaneously and at moments seemingly miraculously into song, I heard the quietly hummed note given in preparation.

Perhaps I’m just too resistant to mysteries.

Holy Saturday, looking westwards (after the performance)

Holy Saturday, looking westwards (after the performance)

2 Responses to “Tenebrae III”

  1. Thom Says:

    Surely yelling out “Alleluia” on a Good Friday is a no no, especially if you’ve “got religion”.

    • marcellous Says:

      I never thought of that. Maybe my memory is tricking me: he could have said “Praise the Lord!” He’d got a very evangelical kind of religion, so religious seasons per se may not have been so important for him.

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