Sex and the single (it’s the only one we have) 12th-century opera? That’s what an early-music outfit was promising at the First Lutheran Church of Boston this past Sunday. “Cappella Clausura brings a sexy new take on the world’s first opera, the Ordo Virtutum
(“Play of the Virtues”), by the amazing composer of the 12th century, Hildegard von Bingen. In our version, a soul interviews for a job at the Devil’s corporation. Can she resist a tempting offer, or will she join a virtuous non-profit? Come find out in this unforgettable new production!” I envisioned a mini-skirted Maggie Gyllenhaal from Secretary
listening all starry eyed as a stogie-chomping Devil proposed to strip-mall Heaven. Didn’t turn out that way: production was minimal in the sanctuary of the church, and though there seemed to have been some attempt to clothe the Virtues in the colors German abbess Hildegard describes in her theological compendium Scivias
, it wasn’t consistent.
But none of that mattered, because Cappella Clausura’s performance was as riveting as the one Sequentia gave at the Church of the Advent back in 1998. Hildegard’s plot has the human Soul heading for the Virtues and Heaven before she’s derailed by the Devil, who promises her fame and fortune, or at the least a cameo on Jersey Shore. The Soul buys in and goes off with Old Nick, whereupon the Virtues — here Humility, Charity, Fear of God, Obedience, Faith, Hope, and Chastity — give one another support while discoursing on why the Soul made the wrong decision. Sure enough, well before the end of the 80 minutes, she’s back. It seems the Devil doesn’t have the best lines after all. He certainly doesn’t have the best tunes — Hildegard doesn’t let him sing, so he has to declaim.
At the First Lutheran Church, he wasn’t even a he. As opposed to Sequentia’s Devil, who bellowed and roared, Margaret Raines, in a red overshirt, commiserated, communed, and cajoled with such solicitude, it was a wonder the Virtues didn’t go with her back down the aisle as well. Young professionals in muted outfits and (in some cases) four-inch heels, they congregated in small groups or lounged on the altar rail. The accompaniment devised by Cappella Clausura director Amelia LeClair (Hildegard provided no performance specifics) looked thin — Josh Schreiber Shalem (the only male performer) on vielle, Janna Frelich on harp, and LeClair herself pitching in on the hurdy-gurdy-like symphonia — but turned out to be perfect.
Laura Betinis’s Soul didn’t need much help; she was as animated as her Latin name (Anima) would suggest, evincing a refreshing sense of self-worth, and with extraordinary enunciation — if you had any Latin at all, you could take dictation. (The reasonably full house had no difficulty following the text in the program, to judge by the rustle of simultaneously turned pages.) The other singers — Daniela Tosic as Humility, Leah Hungerford as Victory, Lori Brennan Chang as Chastity, Gail Abbey as Discretion, Margaret Felice as Patience and Hope, Frelich as Innocence when she wasn’t playing her harp, Liz Mitchell as Charity and Modesty, Ellen Oak as Discipline and Faith, Kimberly Sizer as Heavenly Love and Mercy, Jennifer Webb as Fear of God and Contempt of the World, and Jacque Wilson as Knowledge of God and Obedience — performed on a similarly exalted plane. (In her solos, Sizer’s powerful soaring was almost too big for the space.) As an ensemble, they were pure, rich, but never shrill, and they seemed no more troubled by Hildegard’s challenging melismas than they’d been by the Devil.