First published in The Herald on 23 June, 2014
Orkney’s Italian Chapel sits alone on Lamb Holm, tiny, humble and exquisite; blink and you’d miss it as you travel along the causeways between the mainland and South Ronaldsay. The chapel was cobbled together out of two Nissen huts in 1943, built by Italian prisoners of war who had been brought to Orkney to construct the Churchill Barriers (crucial defences to the British fleet stationed in Scapa Flow). The soldiers painted the exterior in dazzling whites and reds and the interior in sumptuous Catholic iconography â€“ the resilience of their creative imagination is in every brush stroke.
St Magnus Festival holds a concert in the chapel every year: aside from the tremendously moving history of the place, its intimate acoustics make for gorgeous up-close listening. This year’s midsummer concert marked 70 years since the soldiers’ release â€“ an occasion that attracted the Italian ambassador, Scotland’s culture secretary Fiona Hyslop and one of the surviving prisoners of war, a dapper gentleman wielding a camcorder.
The concert itself was thoughtfully conceived if patchily delivered. Italian early-music trio Laus Concentus devised a programme of lute songs and interludes from the early 1600s, around the time of the painter Caravaggio. Groupings of songs linked to his early Roman works: the 1602 canvas Amor Vincit Omnia, for example, was depicted in music by Caccini, Stefani and the aching Si dolce e il tormento by Monteverdi. The two lutes wove their plaintive voices together with quiet grace; soprano Renata Fusco was less delicate, instead matching her earthy chest voice, tremulous ornaments and brassy mannerisms to Caravaggio’s most garish side. Who knows; for the soldiers toiling away with such paltry means 70 years ago, perhaps Fusco’s lavish singing was exactly the escapism they dreamed of.