St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Los Angeles was the location chosen by Cantoris LA for a rare performance of Ordo Virtutum, a morality play written and composed by Hildegard von Bingen, circa 1151. Completed in 1925, the cathedral is one of the purest examples in the United States of the Romanesque architecture that was popular in the 11th and 12th centuries, the same architectural style used for the Rupertsberg Convent where Hildegard founded her first Abbey and where Ordo Virtutum was probably first performed.
Abundantly adorned with 24-carat gold leaf on the walls and ceilings, plus numerous mosaics and paintings, the Episcopal cathedral radiated light from handmade silver sanctuary lamps reflecting against the gold surfaces, and from a giant golden sun painted on the ceiling over the altar. A life-size crucifix of Jesus was suspended above the central altar, encircled by life-size figures of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in mosaic along the curves of the arched wall; copies of paintings by Raphael, Murillo and Corregio hung throughout the church. A huge rose window shone in the west wall; massive Corinthian columns flanked the nave; many different kinds of marble glistened on the walls and in the altar furnishings, along with bronze candlesticks and an altar cross set with precious stones; stained glass clerestory windows topped the high walls of the ship of the church… in short, there was so much beauty, it was difficult to take it all in. The sanctuary gave a silent performance of its own, stunningly evoking a sacred space that could have existed 1,000 years ago.
Medieval instruments intoned the first notes of Hildegard’s music, a hurdy-gurdy played by Arthur Omura droning continuous bass while other ancient stringed instruments, two vielles played by Alexa Pilon and Juliette Primrose, set out a haunting melody in a minor key. They echoed through the vaulted sanctuary as listeners, following a beautiful new English translation of the Latin text by Medieval Latin scholar Justin Haynes, watched the centuries-old story unfold. Most of the action took place in the extra-wide center aisle of the sanctuary, with the audience arranged diagonally on each side of the aisle below the center altar, facing the high altar in the east.
Patriarchs and Prophets announced the presence of the Virtues, marveling at them while other human souls lamented their sins, until a single Soul approached, eager to follow the Virtues into Heaven. Informed that she must first experience life on earth, she accepted but quickly discovered that the course was too difficult. Failing to see the truth of God’s love, she gave in to the Devil’s urging that she should satisfy her appetites in pursuit of the World.
Now each of the Virtues introduced themselves, identifying their unique value and offering their assistance to human souls who would seek the joy of life in God. Finally, the one Soul called upon them for aid, regretting her earlier hasty decision to live apart. They encouraged her to return to their protection, shielding her from the mocking accusations of the Devil, eventually binding him and throwing him out of their presence. Once the Devil was banished, all the human souls and Virtues united to praise God for His goodness and wisdom and to beg for His mercy.
Singing in open fifths from the rear of the sanctuary, the voices of the Patriarchs and Prophets rang out boldly at the beginning of the work. The Virtues answered them from the central altar, which seemed to represent “heaven”. The single Soul whose fate was at stake claimed the center aisle between the two groups, a position symbolizing “earthly life”. It was to this spot that the Devil came when he abruptly emerged from the audience about ten minutes into the play, moving confidently as he rudely challenged the Virtues with coarse speeches. When the lost Soul finally returned to the shelter of the Virtues, she joined them in the heavenly realms of the central altar, and all the Virtues and human souls proceeded together to the choir next to the high altar, to praise God in a glorious unison chorus.
Most of the singing was single melodic lines delivered a capella, with a chime of medieval bells or a droned bass note from the hurdy-gurdy to anchor the pitch, and an occasional expressive interlude from the vielles. Performed from memory by the singers, the music had a spontaneous quality due to its unmetered nature and vocal ornamentation, which added emotional value and gave us an opportunity to feel the unique character of each singer. All the voices were secure in their parts and beautiful to hear, piercing the spacious heights of the building, distinct in timbre and resonance. Although every character was completely different in sound and appearance, by the time they joined together in the unison song of praise at the end, they seemed truly a single unified body blended into one voice, one attitude of worship. The graceful, haunting quality of their pure, disembodied sound as it soared through the cathedral was unforgettable.
Rissi Zimmermann elegantly danced the dramas between all the characters in a free-form, fluidly expressive style that contrasted with the more reserved, formal stance of the singers. She moved back and forth between “earthly life” and “heaven”, painting with her body the pain and confusion of humanity, the sensual appetites and urges of the Devil, then dancing the joy and glory of the Virtues, using movement to create a dynamic tension that matched the spiritual drama.
Singers for the Ordo Virtutum included some of the finest medieval song specialists in the country. The 17 Virtues were sung by Sarah Beaty (Chastity), Lauren Davis (Heavenly Love), Angie Engelbart (Mercy), Hilary Fraser-Thompson (Contempt for the World), Elise Groves (Discipline), Cynthia Marty (Hope), Katina Mitchell (Victory), Kara Morgan (Knowledge of God), Lindsay Patterson (Charity), Phoebe J. Rosquist (Discretion and Obedience), Amelia Tobiason (Patience and Innocence), Argenta Walther (Humility) and Jordan Reddout Wilhoit (Fear of God and Modesty). Suzanne Anderson was scheduled to sing the role of Faith but was unable to appear due to illness, so the role was performed instead by Kara Morgan and Elise Groves, splitting the part between them. Each Virtue was dressed in a simple, floor-length gown, no two of them alike in style or color. They wore custom jewelry that had been designed and created especially for this performance by Eric Ruyak, who used Hildegard’s own descriptions of the Virtues to inspire his creations.
Andrea Zomorodian portrayed the single Soul who was tempted by the Devil and then returned to Heaven, and Mark McClain Wilson nattily personified the Devil in a black suit with a red tie and a black short-brimmed Fedora. His was the only non-singing role, as the ability to make music was adjudged by Hildegard to be an attribute of God. His spoken comments were voiced in a swaggering, arrogant tone, deliberately harsh and brutish. Christopher Gravis, Dermot Kiernan, Vicente Chavarria, David Yang and Nathan Dougherty performed the choruses of the Patriarchs and the Prophets in beautiful, balanced tones, no single voice discernible.
This project was realized through the joint efforts of Producing Artistic Director Katina Mitchell, Stage Director Patricia McKee and Musical Director Ned Tipton, and funded by the Sorel Organization (which funds musical projects of and/or by women), the Leum Family Trust and “Kickstarter” donors. Canon for Music Ministry at St. John’s Cathedral, Ned Tipton spent almost 12 months preparing a new musical edition of the work, consulting images of the precious 12th century manuscripts in order to transcribe Hildegard’s original symbols into something modern singers could read.
About twenty minutes before the end of the performance, one of the members of the audience had a medical emergency which necessitated calling an ambulance and having EMTs carry him out of the sanctuary on a stretcher. We were all assured that he was in stable condition and would be okay. Although this was startling and certainly broke our concentration on the performance, it did not disrupt the power of the story before us but was a reminder of our fragile human condition, intensifying Hildegard’s message of inner peace and renewal through submission to God and devotion to virtuous living.
The full-to-overflowing audience was very appreciative of the high quality of the production and the talents of the performers, rising immediately at the end for a long and enthusiastic standing ovation.