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Ordo Virtutum With All the Trimmings

August 5, 2008

It was a very San Francisco affair. This is, after all, an area where no urban sophisticate blinks an eye when a photo of three leather-clad, motorcycle-mounting Barbies graces the cover of The San Francisco Chronicle's Pink Section. We in the know can routinely combine acupuncture with surgery, homeopathy with Prozac, and adorn our altars with pictures of the Buddha alongside a menorah, crystals, and statues of St. Francis, the Virgin Mary, and Quan Yin. So why can’t the San Francisco Renaissance Voices present Hildegard von Bingen’s medieval morality play, Ordo Virtutum (The ritual of the virtues), as a semistaged, pantheistic drama, with singers dressed in colorful saris performing Kathak Classical Dance choreographed by Purnima Jha, accompanied by Deepak Ram on Bansuri flute, and Diana Rowan’s Celtic harp, and occasional percussion from Music Director Todd Jolly?
To answer that mouthful of a question, it helps to understand the genesis of Ordo Virtutum. According to producer J. Jeff Badger’s program notes, Hildegard composed the work ca.1150 for the dedication of the convent she had established at Rupertsburg, near Bingen, on the Rhine river in Germany. She never meant Ordo Virtutum for public performance. Instead, Badger asserts, she conceived it “as a vehicle for prayer and spiritual contemplation for her nuns.” While it is quite possible that it was presented in staged form within the sanctuary, since Hildegard notated dancing as one of the way in which The Virtues express themselves, it is doubtful that she conceived it in such a spiritually eclectic, Technicolor fashion.
Competing cosmologies
Hildegard’s allegorical masterpiece, which assigns different roles to different singers, is a classic Christian tale of God versus the Devil, good versus evil, and the journey from earthbound sin to the “Celestial Jerusalem.” Soon after the show begins, so to speak, the initially happy Soul, Anima, is tempted by the Devil to abandon her chastity for the pleasures of the world. The Virtues, led by their queen, Humility, provide various weapons to subdue “the ancient snake.” Singing such lines as “You were frightened by the highest judge because you, puffed up with pride, were submerged into hell,” the Virtues set about defeating the Devil. At the journey’s conclusion, some 75 minutes later, the source of all evil is ensnared, Anima is set free, and humility, chastity, and the other virtues proclaim their triumph. Together, everyone but the damned Devil praises the “omnipotent Father,” from whom the ”fountain flows in fiery love.”

Hinduism presents a very different worldview. Rather than positing a God in heaven and a Devil in hell, with sinful human beings caught in between, it posits embracing the god or universal life force within as the path to liberation. God is not an external entity or force; God resides within all living things. Only by fully merging with the God force within ourselves and every animate and inanimate thing can we achieve liberation.

While no Reader’s Digest summary can do justice to a complex belief system and way of life that embraces ideologies of reincarnation, karma, and spiritual liberation, it seems safe to say that Christianity and Hinduism offer different paths to God. Throw Celtic music, rooted in the pagan tradition of Goddess-based nature worship, into the mix, and you have a very confused spiritual cosmology that trivializes Hildegard's faith.
Wonderful musicianship
On a purely musical level, San Francisco Renaissance Voices excelled. Although in consort, voices occasionally deviated one from the other, the overall level of achievement was high. Each woman was given solo responsibilities, and executed them beautifully. If I especially single out Katherine McKee’s rich-voiced and majestic Humility, Elisabeth Eliasson’s operatically communicative Chastity and Modesty, Marisa Lenhardt’s strength and beauty on high, and Meghan O’Connor’s heart-tugging voice of uncommon sympathy, it is not to slight the other singers, each of whom contributed substantially to the realization of Hildegard’s spiritual intent.

Equal praise goes to Jolly, who worked so hard to flesh out the writing with tasteful instrumentation and a few sections of added harmony. The extremely beautiful playing of Deepak Ram and Diana Rowan, which both began and ended the work, was also most gratifying. Thanks to such fine musicianship, it was often possible to put aside questions about the production and bask in the beauty of Hildegard’s transcendent creation.
Camp von Bingen
Nonetheless, extramusical elements sometimes got in the way. First and foremost, the conception sometimes asked too much of the participants. As hard as the women in the chorus tried — a few looked as though they were trying very hard — it was clear that not everyone was incarnated to dance before an audience.

Some elements crossed the line from curiosity to camp. It was bad enough when Tim Mooney, playing the Devil, undid the white sari of The Soul (Chloe Veltman) to reveal a sexy dame in a short, sparkling red dress. But when he proceeded to dress her in earrings and extremely high, ruby red platform shoes, it began to look as though someone had combed every thrift store in the city for an outfit the girls at the Tranny Shack would wear with pride.

Things got worse at the end, when Mooney’s Devil, sounding for all the world like an evil queen with a bad temper, was bound and gagged by the women. The coup de grace came when one of the Virtues covered him in a shiny scarlet sheet, rested one foot atop his body, and raised her hand in victory. Images from The Attack of the Killer Lesbians, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and the Altered Barbie Show flooded the mind. Had Hildegard von Bingen been present, she no doubt would have fled Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church for the safety of the cloister.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.