Musica Secreta / Stras, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

By Bayan Northcott
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This year's Southbank Centre Early Music Weekend, imaginatively planned for the fourth time by Tess Knighton, opened with a bold attempt at solving the problem of how, in the modern concert-hall, to recapture the full significance of music that was once embedded in the church liturgy or court ceremonial.

Under the artistic and musical directorship of Laurie Stras, the women's voices and instrumentalists of Musica Secreta, with their offshoot Celestial Sirens, have made a speciality of bringing to light the Italian convent repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries. Last year, they commissioned a 90-minute film to enhance its presentation.

Staged in the QEH as this year's opening offering, Fallen: a Fantasy in Music, Drama & Film evokes the tormented eve of the forced induction into the Monastero del Corpus Domini at Ferrara in 1618 of a noblewoman, Camilla Faa Gonzaga, who left an account of her life. What we see, projected on a gauze across the front of the stage, is a kind of dream fantasy in which Camilla totters between the importunings of a wounded but seductive young man and the cynically misanthropic comments of the ghost of Lucrezia Borgia (who was buried at the same convent), culminating in a kind of spiritual orgasm, after which Camilla assents to become a Bride of Christ.

What we hear from Musica Secreta, clad as nuns and periodically illuminated behind the gauze, is a chaste musical commentary of chants and items from both Lucrezia's and Camilla's time, culminating in Josquin des Prez's pellucid "Ave Maria".

Does it work? Though well enough acted, with a compelling Lucrezia from Sue Maund, the film is not without its obsessive longueurs. Meanwhile, the music, which also includes some quite elaborate items by Monteverdi's contemporary Alessandro Grandi, was touchingly done, but its qualities as ritual and art were inevitably pushed into incidental relation to the filmed drama.

In the end, what the experience conveyed most was the appalling plight of such women as Camilla, forced by abusive secular power into the ambiguous haven of the almighty Church.