In 2015, I visited my colleague, Associate Professor of Liturgical Studies Michael Driscoll, for a casual conversation in his office at the University of Notre Dame. I was struck by a new book on his desk. It was a volume edited by Notre Dame’s Associate Professor of Italian Studies and Dante Studies Vittorio Montemaggi, titled Dante’s Commedia: Theology as Poetry. It immediately sparked in me a curiosity to find if the Commedia could become the opportunity for a meeting of artists expressing Dante’s views through their particular disciplines. I reached out to Vittorio, who immediately paid homage to his mentor, Robin Kirkpatrick, the world-renowned Dante scholar, translator and poet teaching at the University of Cambridge. This was the beginning of what has been an intense and demanding artistic journey. Robin Kirkpatrick immediately accepted the proposal to develop the libretto for a sacred drama in the manner of an immersive and interactive experience. I then invited Professor of Theatre Anton Juan to join us in developing a concept together.
One of our goals was to be able to create a work that would adapt to variable cultural contexts and artistic circumstances, reflecting the location and the society where it would be presented. We hoped for the work to continue to take different shapes through time, so that other artists and audiences can engage in a process of co-creativity. This is faithful to two central ideas already embedded in Dante’s Commedia, “journey and transformation.” From the very start of our creative discussions, these ruled the central thrust of Robin’s libretto for our new work, which we titled “Journeying the Commedia: Desert, Discovery and Song.”
We planned to create an illusion of distortion and suspension of time. As the audience traveled with Dante and Virgil, they first experienced Inferno as a short play about pride and misguided love, surrounded by a specially created soundscape by composer Christopher Preissing. In Purgatorio, the audience processed with a group of prayerful pilgrims, singing what Dante himself thought was liturgical music sung in the afterlife, and listening to the declarations of suffering souls who some on earth would have thought were damned, but who were, in fact, waiting for their moment of salvation. The procession led the audience into Paradise, where Dante’s long-lost love, Beatrice, awaited him to guide him further up into the highest spheres, close to Our Lady. Paradise was designed to be all music, as Dante thinks this art form is like a prayer and a blessing. As he perceives the sublimity of beauty and prayer, Dante emerges illuminated and renewed,
The beautiful new oratorio composed by Robert Kyr on Robin Kirkpatrick’s poetic libretto — which includes a trope in the form of a short original poem — represents the culmination of Dante´s journey. Kirkpatrick and Kyr discussed the representation of Dante and Beatrice at great length. Dante emerges as a passionate man, fully aware of sensorial beauties as much as spiritual ones. He travels through higher and higher spheres in Paradise, populated by shimmering and resonant voices, which in the live performance stood in close and distant balconies of the theater. Robert Kyr recreates these polarities and motions through distinctive and exquisite vocal writing for both characters, as well as imaginative orchestration throughout for the chamber ensembles. Responsive to medieval practices, Kyr uses the Prelude of Bach´s Suite No. 1 for cello as a sort of cantus firmus that recurs throughout the oratorio. At the end, Kyr includes an uncanny representation of the planetary and spiritual orbits, suggested by bell strokes, and played or hummed pitches, set to mathematical proportions. In the live performance, these sounds surrounded the spectators in a moment of unexpected immersion in the improbable experience of the poet.
Artistic Director of the Sacred Music Drama Projects at Notre Dame
Concept Co-Creator and Music Director