sat 20/04/2024

Our Mother, Stone Nest review - musical drama in a mother's grief | reviews, news & interviews

Our Mother, Stone Nest review - musical drama in a mother's grief

Our Mother, Stone Nest review - musical drama in a mother's grief

Touching staged version of Pergolesi’s 'Stabat Mater' features brilliant singing

Our Mother at Stone Nest in LondonPhoto © Kristina Allen

Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater is one of the most ineffable masterpieces of the 18th century, its poignancy increased by the fact that the 26-year-old composer died shortly after writing it. A medieval meditation about Mary at the foot of the cross, it pitches two voices against a small orchestra, presented in a dramatised production this week by the young historical performance ensemble Figure.

The original two voices (mezzo and soprano) became five singers, the music democratically shared between them: the legendary Emma Kirkby and Catherine Carby (pictured below by Kristina Allen) representing the more senior generation, Rowan Pierce and Alexandra Achillea Pouta the younger – and in debutante Nadya Pickup (taking time away from her GCSE studies) a star of the future. The singing was exceptional throughout, as the voices combined in different combinations, exploring the anguish in its highly chromatic lines, and the staging was elegantly restrained.Catherine Carby in Our MotherThe production featured brand-new interludes by composer Alex Mills. His episodes didn’t try to compete with the emotionalism of the Pergolesi, but transformed and explored the material instrumentally. It reminded me a bit of Max Richter’s reimagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, in some places of Arvo Pärt and in others Michael Nyman. The episodes gave moments of repose between the sung items, cut from the same musical cloth but with clusters and crunches foreign to Pergolesi’s stylistic world. It was interesting to hear the band of period instruments – strings, theorbo and chamber organ – in a contemporary soundworld, if one rooted in the baroque.

One of the stars of the night was the venue: Stone Nest on Shaftesbury Avenue, not somewhere I had been before. A Victorian Welsh chapel, bang next door to the building John le Carré chose as his “Circus”, the home of the secret service in the George Smiley novels, it has, since its deconsecration in 1982, been a nightclub and Australian bar, but is now a very unlikely fringe arts venue bang in the middle of Theatreland. It is a beautiful venue, its lack of polish very appealing, but I was a bit perplexed by the decision to have the audience mostly standing. There didn’t seem much point to it, beyond meaning that most people couldn’t see much of the stage. I stood on a chair at the back, and only afterwards realised there was a gallery, which afforded a much better view. Emma Kirkby and Nadya Pickup in Our MotherThis cavil aside, there was not much to fault. Musical director Frederick Waxman led from the organ with an understated authority. The direction (Sophie Daneman) and lighting (Chris Burr) both intensified the experience, and the ensemble were spot-on. But it was the singing that was at the heart of things. The contrast between the voices pointing up the sharp dissonances of Pergolesi’s writing: Emma Kirkby’s precision and humility set against Catherine Carby’s rich mezzo, Rowan Pierce’s urgency against Alexandra Achillea Pouta’s chromatic droops – and Nadya Pickup (pictured above) showing a nerveless assurance. The final movement hit me in the gut, as it always does, speaking of “the glory of paradise”. It is shattering music, tender, tortured, heavenly, but there is no glory here.

@bernardlhughes

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