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Anonymous: Introit for the Dedication of a Church
Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo virtutum

Seraphic Fire: Luthien Brackett (Anima), Clara Osowski (Humility), James K. Bass (Devil), Patrick Dupré Quigley (conductor), Sara Guttenberg (chorus master)
Recording: Sauder Concert Hall, Goshen Hall, Goshen, Indiana (November 13-14, 2019) – 67’53
SFM #SFMCD01616 (Distributed by Naxos of America) – Booklet in English – Text and translation in Latin and English

With all due respect to those who champion Jacopo Peri’s Euridice of 1600, I’ve long regarded the first Western opera as Ordo virtutum, the Play of the Virtues, a one-hour musical drama completed by 1151 by the Abbess Hildegard of Bingen. True, it has many characteristics which it shares with Medieval Mystery Plays, and a decidedly theological point of view, but there is no escaping the vivid drama conveyed through song and original lyrics that make it a standout musical event from the 12th century or at any time.

A Renaissance woman before there was a Renaissance, Hildegard was born to a well-to-do family in 1098 in the Rhein-Mosel wine-growing region of what is now Germany. At a young age, she was sent to study with a Benedictine abbess, the Countess Jutta von Sponheim, who lived as an anchoress in a one-room apartment not far from the convent whose activities she directed. Eventually Hildegard, too, became an abbess as well as a scholar-practitioner renowned in fields as diverse as medicine, natural history, music composition, art, poetry, Christian mysticism and a lively correspondence with notable figures such as the Pope Eugene III, King Barbarossa, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux. She is one of only four women recognized as Doctors of the Catholic Church and was canonized in 2012.

While Hildegard’s many hymns and chants are familiar to Western audience, Ordo is less well known, but that may change thanks to a new recording by Seraphic Fire, an American ensemble formed in 2002 and led in this production by its founder, Patrick Dupré Quigley. This reading of the hour-long music drama teems with electrifying energy, respect for the musical practices of a time long past and an intense feeling for the drama that can be conveyed by the unadorned human voice. The group also incorporates recent Hildegard scholarship in its presentation, identifying the opening introit as an anonymous piece which would have be familiar to early listeners, and not as part of the composer’s original composition.

The work, in Latin with English translation in the accompanying booklet, is divided into six sections: a Prologue, four Parts, and an Epilogue. The heroine of this drama is the soul (Anima, sung by Luthien Brackett) who, in the spirit of allegory, is counseled by a chorus of Virtues offering their protection as she progresses through the treacherous labyrinth of life.

But it doesn’t take long for her nemesis to appear. As the title on Part II declares, “Enter the Devil”, always the juiciest role in any church theater production. But Hildegard does not allow Satan to use the sacred art of music. And so, performer James K. Bass must shout, not sing, the sinister salutation, “Fatue, fatue!” (foolishly, foolishly) referring to Anima’s dedication to a virtuous life. From this point onward, it’s a touch-and-go race between the forces of Good and Evil, as one by one, the Virtues reveal themselves and their distinctive role in leading the soul to salvation.

Since this work is monophonic, Seraphic Fire has had to use its collective wits to develop lively and engaging ways to pique and sustain interest without taking liberties with the score. One of these is to match the unique timbre and character of each voice to the virtue and text it represents. Charity sings in measured tones, but Fear of God’s edgy voice expresses immediacy. Chastity’s song rises with gentle purity, while Heavenly Love’s defense is sung in piercing tones (one thinks of Bellini’s sculpture of St. Teresa). Even the choruses between arias vary in response to the text, at one point speeding up in response to the Devil’s relentless taunting. But conquering temptation is the Queen of all Virtues, Humility, a role which some claim Hildegard herself sang in the earliest productions. In this recording, Clara Osowski delivers her message with majesty, warmth and conviction. While there is no actual counterpoint or chord progressions, the illusion of harmony is created by quickly moving melismas and, at times, by a drone of lower voices beneath a soprano melody.

As the soul and her sister Virtues capture and bind Satan, we begin to see that the allegory may apply not only to theological concerns, but also to today’s secular universe in which women must join forces with their sisters to defeat sexism. But there is no contest between men and women in the production of this absorbing recording, which somehow teases a hint of church sanctuary reverberation out of an acoustically balanced concert hall. Quigley and Bass are aesthetic partners par excellence with Osowski, Brackett and the other women vocalists. Additional cheers to chorus master Sara Guttenberg and Honey Meconi, artistic advisor and Hildegard scholar. Now, everyone, how about coming back with a video complete with costumes and dance, to bring out the forgotten operatic properties of this memorable and timeless work.

Linda Holt




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