Giovanni Bononcini’s oratorio La conversione di Maddalena
“The whole performance seemed tailored to the present moment, as it breathed melodious life into a dusty manuscript that had waited 300 years to be so up-to-date.” —New York Classical Review
The Big Picture
This coming March, the Academy of Sacred Drama presents a powerful Lenten reflection: a musical drama by Giovanni Bononcini, his oratorio La conversione di Maddalena (1701). This tale of the conversion of Mary Magdalene finds her at a crossroads, caught between the influence of Divine and Profane Love.
Written during the Baroque, the source material for our musical production conflates the story of Mary Magdalene (a follower of Jesus and the sister of Martha) with that of Mary of Egypt, a repentant prostitute. Though factually dubious, the story of Mary Magdalene’s conversion of heart is a universal tale. Contemporary taste might have some fresh opinions about what is right or wrong, but the tension between pleasure and freedom is a theme of immediate contemporary significance.
The composer Giovanni Bononcini (1670–1747), a contemporary of G.F. Handel, had an international career and was one of most celebrated composers of his day. He worked with an unknown librettist to create this oratorio. The text is often attributed to Riccardo Rodiano, but his authorship is unlikely. There are still many mysteries in the sacred drama genre, and hopefully future scholarship answer these questions.
Though we perform without sets or costumes, the Academy’s performances tell a story through emotive gestures and subtle movement-based staging. The style of singing and instrumental music is unique and poignant. After seeing one of the Academy’s performances, an audience member remarked, “Opera has never appealed to me, but I think that oratorio is my thing!”
Preparing for the Performances
Preparing for performances of oratorios—musical dramas written about legendary sacred subject material—is more like preparing for a play or a musical than a concert. Each of the singers works in advance to understand the story as a whole and embody their character. Character development is partially a matter of personal taste on the part of the singer and partially something that is worked into a larger vision by the music and movement directors.
The whole production is musical—sung in Italian with English translations in the program. The music is divided between arias (or songs) and movements of recitative (which sound more like musical speech). All the action happens in the recits, and reflections on those events take place during the arias—much like dialogue in a Broadway musical would be organized.
We have an stellar cast for A Change of Heart: Awet Andemicael, soprano, is cast as Mary Magdalene, and Janna Critz, mezzo-soprano, plays the role of her sister Martha. Nola Richardson, soprano, appears as Divine Love and is set in opposition to John Taylor Ward, bass-baritone, Profane Love.
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu invited Awet to sing at the opening of a moving reenactment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and her voice can also be heard in the Warner Brothers film Miss Congeniality. Janna is a winner of The Biannual Bethlehem Bach Vocal Competition, and the Baltimore Sun notes her “vivid vocalism”.
Nola Richardson, who played the role of the Angel in the Academy’s production Crossroads “was totally delightful, displaying nimble coloratura and a light voice of penetrating beauty” according to the South Florida Classical Review. Taylor’s performances have been praised for their “stylish abandon” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker), and he performs regularly with many of the world’s finest baroque ensembles.
A month or so before the final week of rehearsals and performances, the singers get together with the directors to work on their recitatives and start to develop a system for thinking about movement in the production. The recits are often complex, with a lot of ideas that have to be taken apart. In the Academy productions, Adam Cockerham, the associate artistic director, leads the preliminary rehearsals from a plucked instrument from antiquity called a theorbo.
Tony Lopresti, a classically-trained mime, leads movement workshops during this initial period to start getting the singers to think about how to communicate ideas from the text and music with movement. Oratorios traditionally do not have scenery or costumes, so the storyline has to be communicated entirely through movement and music.
Finally, the week of the performances, everyone involved in the production gets together to spend a couple of days working primarily on the music. The next two days are devoted to movement and polishing the music, and then it is time for the performances.
What to Expect
When you arrive, look for A Change of Heart signs and the Academy of Sacred Drama harp logo. At the entrance to the performance space, an usher will scan your ticket and give you a program. Some tickets will be available for purchase at the door if you did not buy them in advance. We strongly recommend that you buy your tickets in advance, however, so we can reduce bottlenecks at the door and start the production on time.
Besides a designated section at the front of the venue for premium ticket holders (marked with yellow ribbons), seating is unassigned. So the earlier you arrive, the better seats you can get! Early arrivals might even be able to hear some holiday favorites before the main performance.
The main production is entirely musical—sung in Italian with English translations in the program. Now that Netflix has made watching shows with subtitles more mainstream, we hope you will be comfortable with this format.
About halfway through the approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes of music, there will be a 15 minute intermission. Intermission is an opportunity to chat with your friends and neighbors and to take a bathroom break.
After the performance, you will be able to greet many of the performers before you leave. In Scarsdale, there will be a reception, and, in New York City, we will thank you as you depart. There is a sense of nostalgia that comes from finishing a large production. But we will soon be preparing for our next season, and we are excited to share our plans with you.
As a final note, there is no dress code for our performances. Some people celebrate in semi-formal attire while others prefer something more trendy. Just focus on having a good time the way your prefer. We are gratified that you would join us for this rare gem of the forgotten musical past.