La Testa Di Santa Caterina

Program Note

Growing up in Moscow, one of the most memorable (and terrifying) experiences of my childhood was the annual trip to the Mausoleum — a black tomb not unlike the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs, in which the Soviet communists preserved the body of Vladimir Lenin. The image of the mummified Lenin bathed in a yellowish glow, surrounded by plastic flowers, remains ingrained in my memory.

I had a similarly chilling, yet somehow thrilling experience this past summer when I encountered the mummified head of St. Catherine in the Basilica San Domenico in Siena. Even though it dates from 1383, with the right angle and a trick of light we imagine the beautiful woman Catherine once was. St. Catherine, who believed herself to be the bride of Jesus, died of starvation at the age of thirty-three and was buried in Rome. Her head was cut off, stolen from its Roman grave by her fellow Sienese, who wished to bury St. Catherine in her native city.

The text for this work is based on St. Catherine’s last letter, written in 1377. Catherine, who at this point had nearly starved herself to death, describes an hallucination – likely a clinical death experience. Despite the subject matter, the text of this letter conveys something rather naive, even joyful, in the voice of a young girl, who is ready to accept death playfully. As if predicting the future, Caterina (voiced by Ariadne Greif) talks about her own head, separated from her body.

Matti Kovler

Team & Cast

Premiere Performance (Italy)

Chiesa di St. Agostino, Siena

Alda Caiello – soprano
Mauro Bonifacio – conductor
Vittorio Ceccanti – cello,
Marco Ortolani – clarinet
Maurizio Ben Omar – vibraphone

World premiere / subsequent performances

Ariadne Greif, soprano
Tomas Cruz, countertenor
Denexxel Domingo, clarinet
Yoni Draiblate, cello
Michael Roberts, vibraphone
Sarah Fylak, electronics
Matti Kovler, conductor


“Many Modern Compositional Styles from NEC”
May 15th, 2011, by Joel Schwindt

…Soprano Ariadne Greif, who served as the voice of Saint Catherine, displayed an impressive level of engagement, moving effectively between sung and spoken portions of the text while remaining firmly engaged in the drama itself. Kovler’s composition was often highly abstracted, as motivic fragments freely moved in and out of the overall texture; the composer created contrasts by engineering momentary confluences of these disparate elements. The strongest confluence of motivic and even harmonic structure was when Saint Catherine speaks of her vision, in which her head was separated from her body — foreshadowing the post-mortem removal of her head, which was done so that some part of her body could rest in her native town of Siena (she was interred in Rome).