The interest was more historical than theatrical in Hildegard von Bingen's "Ordo Virtutum" ("Play of the Virtues"), which had its Washington premiere Saturday night at the University of Maryland about eight centuries after its opening night in Germany. But the performance, by the international ensemble Sequentia, was a unique musical experience with an air of serene, timeless beauty.
The "Ordo Virtutum" is a morality play, portraying the capture of a soul by the Devil, and its rescue by a squad of virtues with such names as World-Rejection (Contemptus Mundi), Discretion (Discretio), Discipline (Disciplina) and Fear of God (Timor Dei). The soul (Anima) is lured by the Devil into something most members of the audience might have found quite natural: love of the world. "God created the world . . . I only want to enjoy it," Anima says -- to the horror of such onlookers as Humility (Humilitas), Charity (Caritas) and Chastity (Castitas).
The devil (the only male and the only speaking role in the cast) provides a shocking contrast to the ethereal women's voices. He is finally routed by Victory (Victoria), who comes on stage in military costume brandishing an enormous sword. And if Victory seems an odd name for a virtue, perhaps we should recall that at its Latin root, the word for "virtue" is closely allied to the word for "power." Although there is not a single human being in the cast, there are fair amounts of dramatic conflict and tension -- diluted somewhat by a pace that seems slow to modern tastes.
Whatever philosophical problems a modern audience might have with the play's underlying concepts, the music was exquisite, with the limpid charm of plainchant enhanced by simple harmonies and instrumental accompaniment. The women of the ensemble came close to perfection, vocally and stylistically, and their Latin diction was excellent. The interpretation was a rare and happy blend of scholarship and musicianship, not only in the singing but in the colorfully authentic and well-used props and costumes. Unfortunately, the visual impact of the performance was reduced by the poor sightlines in the Memorial Chapel.