Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi

Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier’s oratorio Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi
Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier (1662-1700), composer | Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi (1687)
Christina Kay, soprano, as Maria Maddalena role of MM is sponsored by Paul Sasseville
Nathan Hodgson, tenor, as Amor Divino role of AD is sponsored by Frederick Negem
Emily Donato, soprano, as La Madre
John Taylor Ward, bass-baritone, as Il Padre
Jeremy Rhizor, music director and violin | Tony Lopresti, movement director | Adam Cockerham, associate music director and theorbo | Marc Bellassai, harpsichord and virginal | Arnie Tanimoto, cello | John Stajduhar, double bass | Dan McCarthy, viola | Lydia Becker, violin

Thank you to Concerts at Saint James the Less for sponsoring the Scarsdale performance and to Lawrence Holodak for sponsoring the New York City performance.

The Story

Lulier’s musical drama explores the story of the Italian mystic Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi. As a teenage girl, she hears the call of God and convinces her parents to let her enter a convent.

The oratorio starts right in the middle of an argument as the saint tries to convince her parents that she should enter the convent, and she works to strengthen her own resolve to that end. Like many parents, the saint’s would like to have grandchildren—something that they will not have if she becomes a professed celibate. The choice is between two apparent goods—family life and the religious life—and the saint must choose (with the cooperation of her parents) the greater good that corresponds to her call in life.

The saint is discovered rapt in ecstasy by
her parents.
The saint receives the habit of the Carmelite Order.

Before she became the nun known as Maria Maddelena, the saint was called Lucrezia at home. She engaged in self-flagellation, wore a crown of thorns, and had many mystical experiences even before her teens. This quite unusual teenager joins the convent in the second act of the oratorio and becomes aware of greater pain and suffering in her future. Yet even in this context, her parents begin to see that their daughter is where she belongs—a bride of Christ, or, as her father puts it, “You have flown to heaven, and been transformed into stars.”

The Composer

If you have never heard of the Baroque composer Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier, you are not alone. Lulier never had the global star power of some of his colleagues such as George Frideric Handel (composer of the iconic oratorio Messiah) or the violinist and composer Arcangelo Corelli. However, he was a great musician in his own right.

Born in 1662, Lulier was active during the Baroque era. Being an excellent musician during that time meant being able to play an instrument, sing, and compose. He played both the cello and the trombone and is believed to have been the principal cellist in Corelli’s Roman orchestra. His surviving works include operas, a serenata, oratorios, and cantatas.

Arcangelo Corelli leading a serenata at Piazza di Spagna. Lulier is probably one of the cellists pictured in the orchestra.

He was employed by two great patrons of the Baroque arts: Cardinal Pamphili and Cardinal Ottoboni. He was in charge of Cardinal Pamphili’s musical affairs, and, in 1690, he entered the service of Cardinal Ottoboni when Pamphili become papal legate at Bologna.

Pamphili was librarian of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, wrote libretti for operas and oratorios, was a friend of Handel, and was a member of the prestigious literary society, the Accademia degli Arcadi. Ottoboni was the godfather of the preeminent Italian poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio, and he was a great patron of the arts—supporting some of the Baroque era’s finest composers including Antonio Caldara, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi.

The Music

Even people who listen to a lot of Baroque music have often not heard much of the Baroque oratorio repertoire. And only people at a single performance at the chapel of The Queen’s College, Oxford in 2012 will have ever heard Lulier’s oratorio Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi (1687) in modern times.

The Academy is bringing this music to the Western Hemisphere for the first time. Using the edition that Oxford Baroque used in 2012 and the maunscript in the Biblioteca Estense e Universitaria in Modena as a starting point, we created our own edition for this performance.

Typically, oratorios start with an instrumental number (called a sinfonia) before the voices start to interact. In at least one historical case, a performance of Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi was preceed by a sinfonia that Corelli wrote for another oratorio by Lulier called Santa Beatice d’Este. We will start our own performance with Corelli’s sinfonia, and you can listen to a recording of that music below.

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 is organized.

The singers are accompanied by a band of string instruments including widely familiar instruments such as violins, a viola, a cello, and a double bass, as well as less ubiquitous instruments such as a harpischord and a theorbo (a lute with a long neck to accomodate longer bass strings).

The core of the instrumental ensemble is known as the continuo team. This group of instruments all play off the of the bass line (the lowest written line) and include the cello, harpsichord, and theorbo. They play almost continually throughout the production. The other instruments play more occasionally, sometimes just at instrumental interjections known as ritornelli or when accompanying the voices at select moments during the oratorio.

The Characters (and Singers)

We have a stellar cast for Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi. Christina Kay, soprano, is cast as the title character, the saint Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi. Nathan Hodgson, tenor, plays the allegorical character known as Amor Divino or Divine Love. And the saint’s parents are played by a soprano and bass-baritone pair. Emily Donato, soprano, is her mother (La Madre), and John Taylor Ward, bass-baritone, is her father (Il Padre).

Christina will guide her character through her growth from the pious girl Lucrezia to her entrance into the religious life as Mary Magdalene. Christina played the title role in the Academy’s production St. Nicholas. She is a co-founder of Filigree Ensemble and will sing this season with the ensembles True Concord, ARTEK, Crescendo Music, and The Western Wind.

Nathan’s character embodies Divine Love, and, as such, offers guidance and comfort to the saint. As the oratorio progresses and the saint more fully sublimates her will to the will of God, his allegorical personality will become concrete in the person of the saint. Nathan is on the permanent roster in the Schola Cantorum at The Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer in New York City and performs with ensembles across the nation including Ensemble VIII in Austin, TX, Skylark Vocal Ensemble in the Greater Boston area, and Apollo’s Fire in Cleveland.

The saint’s mother and father are a united team who yearn for grandchildren and a good life for their daughter—a life that does not involve great suffering and heroic levels of sanctity. Emily, who will play the part of the saint’s mother, was recently awarded first prize in the 2023 Handel Aria Competition, and made her Carnegie Hall Stern Auditorium debut in May 2023 as the soprano soloist in Bach’s B Minor Mass with the Oratorio Society of New York.

Taylor, who will play the part of the saint’s father, appeared as Profane Love in the Academy’s production A Change of Heart. His performances have been praised for their “stylish abandon” (Alex Ross, The New Yorker). He performs regularly with the world’s finest baroque musicians and ensembles, including Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata, Paul O’Dette, Steven Stubbs and the Boston Early Music Festival, William Christie and Les arts florissants, and Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists.

Christina Kay, soprano, sings at the Academy’s preliminary rehearsal day in Croton Falls.
Adam Cockerham, assoicate artistic director, speaks about the character Amor Divino.

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 Academy productions, Adam Cockerham, the associate artistic director, leads 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 help 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 is communicated mostly through movement and music.

What to Expect

When you arrive at the venue, look for Mary Magdalene de’ Pazzi signs and the Academy of Sacred Drama harp logo. In New York City, 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.

In Scarsdale, the performance is free with a suggested donation. No prior RSVP will be requested except for Academy members who would like premium seats.

Besides a designated section at the front of the venue for premium ticket holders (marked with ribbons), seating is unassigned. So the earlier you arrive, the better seats you can get! Early arrivals might even be able to hear some instrumental music by Arcangelo Corelli 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.

An example of the type of music that you will hear at our production.
Another example of Italian sacred drama performed by the Academy.

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. There is a sense of nostalgia that comes from finishing a large production. But we will soon be preparing for our 10th Anniversary Celebration at The Explorers Club, 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 you prefer. We are gratified that you would join us for this rare gem of the forgotten musical past.