THE Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński has a long emotional association with Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater, as the first movement was one of the earliest solo pieces that he prepared while a student at Warsaw University. At the time, Orliński dreamed of swapping piano accompaniment for performing with fuller orchestration. And now that dream has been realised in cross-genre fashion with Sebastian Panczyk’s opera pop video of Stabat Mater.
Orliński, who combines break-dancing and 124,000 Instagram followers with a recent debut in Royal Opera House’s Theodora and a Wigmore Hall residency, is aiming this release squarely at listeners who may be encountering the music for the first time. Arguing that pop music has created videos “for the longest time” to give listeners a richer experience, Orliński stars in an interpretation of the hymn which will be accessible to people unfamiliar with Baroque or even classical music. And, as Vivaldi used only the first ten stanzas of the 13th-century Latin hymn in his composition, the length lends itself well to short-form cinematic treatment.
Although the director, Panczyk, is known for creating advertising for multinational telecoms and car companies, the style of Stabat Mater owes much to Eastern European arthouse directors, especially Andrej Tarkovsky, with lingering shots of forests, spookily empty lakes, and subjective camera viewpoints, letting us inhabit the singing hero’s dreamlike world. Nature’s beauty is interspersed with shockingly gory violence. Stabat Martyr had its première in the short-film section of the Warsaw Film Festival.
Accompaniment is provided on period instruments by Capella Cracoviensis, conducted by Jan Tomasz Adamus, the mellow soundscape contrasting with the flashes of modern Poland in the film, as Orliński crouches foetally before a speeding car’s headlights, and waits at a high-tech bus stop, before boarding a bus, splattered with his companions’ blood. The singer says that empathy is the key to understanding his journey from an all-too-brief idyllic friends’ woodland outing, to a house party with a sinister twist, and then on to the opera-house stage, a giant stag linking the disparate worlds of nature, contemporary life, and performance.
For Orliński, the sacred with the secular are linked: “I want to touch both those worlds and make it approachable for both audiences. As a person, I’m very spiritual. I began singing in a choir, and we performed in churches and cathedrals, and I have a big, big space in my heart for that. And there’s an understanding. And that’s how my musicality got shaped. So that’s why it touches both worlds.”
The attraction of Stabat Mater’s subject-matter to composers throughout the ages informs Orliński’s approach. “Composers were really so inspired by this very well-known sequence, and the majority of them are crazy good. We have the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, it’s super-beautiful, but it’s different beautiful. It contains different sort of tools, because you have also the soprano and the duets, and it’s, it’s really captivating, and grabbing the emotions.
”But with this piece, it’s incredible how Vivaldi sets everything basically in one key. And it’s a journey through the first moment to the last moment, and you have everything set in one key. And everything is set with the small ensemble, very pure. And one of the most beautiful things is this Stabat Mater is just for viola and violins. It’s crazy.”
In the film, Orliński sings the second movement, “Cuius animam”, a cappella, as he glides through a house party in one long take. The logistics of performing while moving through a crowded room on a trolley, combined with the Warsaw extras’ enthusiastic reaction to the singer, beaming when they should have looked serious, made this the hardest sequence in the film to choreograph and complete. But it does showcase Orliński’s incredibly expressive voice, offering up this lyrical prayer of empathy for shared human suffering, to beautiful effect.
Warner Classical’s interpretation of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater is a long way from sacred music by candlelight, and the explicit imagery could feel a departure too far; but it will certainly bring the music and Orliński’s fabulous voice to new and appreciative audiences.