A young man in a surgical smock lies motionless on a steel trolley – quite literally a ‘patient etherised upon a table’. Arrayed behind him are several heart monitors, propped up against step ladders. A string of naked light bulbs hangs from the high ceiling of Shoreditch Town Hall. The familiar sound of the electrocardiogram’s cold beep.
This is no ordinary classical concert. As the musicians and singers enter – in silence – they move slowly and quizzically across the stage, as if coming to terms with the space itself, the grand Victorian hall, the expectant audience, and the still-living body before us.
Sacrifices is a collaboration between the brilliant young ensemble La Nuova Musica and opera director Andrew Staples, yet its pedigree is less operatic, eschewing both magnificent set and inflated performance, and more in line with contemporary theatre practice. Indeed the promotional material promises ‘immersive sound installations’ (happily an overstatement: the only thing I was immersed in was the music).
The simplicity of Staples’ staging is wholly appropriate to the programme, two Baroque oratorios: a form of sacred music which, whilst dramatic in conception, is not designed to be staged theatrically. Both oratorios draw from Old Testament stories of sacrifice: Charpentier’s Sacrificium Abrahae from the tale of Abraham and Isaac; Jephte by Carissimi from the less well-known account of Jephthah, the Israelite judge who sacrifices his own daughter as the result of a decidedly injudicious oath.
The trolley is of course the sacrificial slab, and the body turns out to be Isaac (Sean Smith), an unspeaking actor who moves, phantom-like, among the singers. They, in turn, alternate between static disengagement and full interaction, sometimes narrating the story, sometimes voicing the characters. Tenor Simon Wall is a steadfast, sympathetic Abraham, whilst the bewilderment and childlike innocence of Isaac is brought to life by Raffaele Pe’s delicate counter-tenor. Throughout, both the singers and the two actors playing Isaac and Jephthah’s daughter perform in refined, unfussy movements. At no point is the music jeopardised by overacting.
Yet there are also moments of high drama. As Jephthah’s daughter (Siân Goff) lies dying on the trolley, the singers assemble in a line – like a firm of grim-faced undertakers in their black suits – whilst an actor administers an intravenous drip. And the climax of Sacrificium Abrahae, with Abraham’s sword hanging perilously above his defenceless son, is a heart-stoppingly brilliant orchestration of voice and drama.
Perhaps the most capable performer amongst the singers was Sophie Junker, whose soaring soprano as Jephthah’s daughter perfectly captured Carissimi’s dark lyricism. Mention must also be made of fellow soprano Augusta Hebbert, confident and engaging in any role. The singers were ably supported by the group’s instrumentalists; two wielding wonderfully outsized Baroque lutes called theorbos.
The only analogy I can think of for this kind of collaboration is Punchdrunk and ENO’s Duchess of Malfi, a large-scale promenade piece performed in a vast Docklands office block in 2010. But where the spectacular Malfi often struggled with the weight of its own ambition, this much smaller production profited from a more intimate, focused vision.
As the music finally stopped, first singers and then musicians walked out in silence, some touching the dead body of Jephthah’s daughter, denying the audience what I’m sure would have been a standing ovation. I am probably scraping the barrel to mention two or three typos in the surtitles. For this is an almost impeccable hour-long production whose intelligent and restrained use of theatre animates two pieces of music whose dramatic potential might otherwise be lost.
Sacrifices is a triumph for La Nuova Musica’s Artistic Director David Bates, who also conducts, and another storming success for Spitalfields Festival. It’s performed for two nights only, but if you miss out, here’s an alternative from the Festival’s impressive programme: Samuel Beckett’s quartet of monologues Old Earth on Saturday, featuring actor Alan Howard and world-renowned choral group The Sixteen.