Liturgical drama debuts at Aspen Chapel |

Liturgical drama debuts at Aspen Chapel

Stewart Oksenhorn
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

After years of Bach Birthday Bashes at the Aspen Chapel, organist Susan Nicholson felt the celebration needed a shake-up. She had a great title for the replacement concert: Music of the Mystics. But apart from the name and the conviction that Messiaen, the French Catholic composer, would fit well in the theme, she had few other concrete ideas.But Cynthia Bourgeault did.

Since moving to the Roaring Fork Valley, in 1991, Bourgeault has wanted to present a rare art form, liturgical drama. The form, which has its origins in the ninth century, is rare enough that Bourgeault says it has never been presented in Aspen before. But that is about to change.The Aspen Chapel concert – titled, of course, Music of the Mystics – will feature Bourgeault directing the musical drama “Visitatio Sepulchri,” which dates to the 12th century. The program also features choral and chamber works by Barber, Poulenc, Messiaen and others. The concert is set for Sunday, March 11, at 7:30 p.m.Liturgical drama is obscure, but Bourgeault’s history with it runs back over 30 years. While earning a Ph.D. in medieval music at the University of Pennsylvania, she co-founded the Collegium Musicum. Part of the ensemble’s repertoire were musical plays taken from Holy Scripture; among these was “Visitatio Sepulchri” (“visit to the sepulcher”), a telling of the visit by Mary Magdalene and two friends to Christ’s tomb. In addition to presenting the piece along the East Coast in the 1970s, Bourgeault directed a filmed performance in the ’80s at the French monastery where the drama originated nine centuries ago.”The first thing you hear is this piercing sound of three women, singing, ‘Heu,’ this archetypal cry of grief,” said Bourgeault, an Episcopal priest who works as an associate clergywoman at the Aspen Chapel. “And the play starts in total darkness. People just absorb the sound of the emotion in that, without having to get their eyes wrapped around it.”Cathy Pelowski plays Mary Magdalene; Julie Paxton and Marina Hayman play the two friends (both also named Mary). Paul Dankers is the angel who informs them Christ has risen; Scott MacCracken plays Christ.

Bourgeault finds the Aspen Chapel with its Gothic aura, lights streaming through high windows, and in-the-round design a natural for dramatic liturgy. She is able to use the entire church as a theater, as the form was originally presented. But her first idea, a decade ago, was to use the Benedictine Monastery in Old Snowmass, where she studied monasticism. At the time, she didn’t know enough local singers to stage a performance. Having spent years singing in the Aspen Choral Society, and writing the libretto for the “Passion” composed by Choral Society director Ray Adams, she has developed the connections needed for the 10-minute “Visitatio Sepulchri.”The monastery setting would have had an unbeatable historical connection. In the Dark Ages, Bourgeault points out, drama was nonexistent in Europe. The resurrection of theater began in monasteries.”People think we got from Greek tragedy to Shakespeare in one leap,” said Bourgeault, who splits her time between Old Snowmass and Maine. “But it was reborn in the ninth century in monasteries with the idea of doing staged dialogues: The angel asks, ‘Who do you seek?’ and Mary Magdalene says, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ The angel says, ‘He’s not here; he is risen.'””In the 10th century, people were doing it as musical drama,” continued Bourgeault, noting that those musical parts constituted the first Western opera arias, “and by the 12th century, this thing just mushroomed.””I’ve had a dream, since I first came to Aspen, of sharing this art form. I just wanted people to hear it and see it.”

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