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Depending on which reviews you read, Simon Rattle's St Matthew Passion, first staged in collaboration with the American theatre director Peter Sellars in 2010, was either revelatory or, according to one critic of its 2014 Proms appearance, a travesty best experienced with eyes firmly shut. Perhaps this was to be expected. Sellars is nothing if not a polarizing radical, and his interpretation of opera has frequently been met in equal measure by those who hold his work in high critical acclaim and others who are bewildered by its eccentricity. Turning his attention to Bach's Passions, pinnacles of sacred music, and so working in altogether more sensitive territory, he could hardly fail to divide opinion. Pinnacles they may be, but the Passions aren't untouchable, and Rattle and Sellars have perceptively framed their staging ‑ or, as they describe it, their 'ritualization' ‑ in terms intended to respect the past as well as to resonate with modern audiences.
They begin with the notion that the St
John Passion was in Bach's day the cause of great perplexity and uneasiness
among churchgoers, whose complaints that it was too operatic and therefore
unsuited to church use have lost their force over time and especially now
that the Passion is generally experienced as , a concert, rather than a
liturgical work. To realize it in staged form is their way of regenerating
that same kind of impact today, an attempt to remain true to the spirit,
though not the letter, of Bach's strikingly original storytelling. In its
own way it's a no less authentic idealization than John Butt's recent
liturgical reconstruction of the Passion, which is simply a dramatization of
a different sort (reviewed in June 2013). Otlwrwise, however, the authentic
credentials of this performance are on shakier ground.
The Berliner Philharmoniker adopts a suitably slender formation, not that you would know that from the accompanying book, which unhelpfulfy lists the entire orchestra personnel ‑ tuba, clarinets, percussion and all ‑ but says nothing about the make‑up of this particular band. The Rundfunkchor Berlin numbers about 40 singers, which is a large group for a professional performance these days, but the size of the choir probably serves the visual objectives of this particular interpretation better than a smaller group would, especially in the mob choruses. Rattle himself, though no stranger to period performance, would not nowadays be many people's first choice for Baroque repertory; to be credible against strong competition, he needs to deliver something very special indeed.
The staging takes place in the round. Astonishingly, Sellars had never encountered the St John Passion before his involvement in this production, but his lack of pre‑knowledge, and his recent work on the Matthew ‑ a very different representation of the Passion, overlaid with grief ‑ can only have heightened his reaction to the John and his focus on what he describes as its utter horror and violence. Sellars draws all participants into the events portrayed, including orchestral players and occasionally conductor, and the physical interaction between them helps knit a stronger and more flexible dramatic structure than would have been possible had they remained in separate units. The soloists move around freely, acting out not only the dramatic episodes articulated explicitly in the libretto but also the implied events that link or help to explain these episodes. Thus chorales, conventionally a periodic step away from the action, become an essential part of it as backdrop to additional foreground movement among the soloists, as at the beginning of Part 2 where the chorale describes the circumstances of Jesus's arrest as we see him being led into the judgement hall.
Arias are used in a similar way: the singers are voices of conscience, physically engaging with other characters to demonstrate metaphor; or they are involved in little vignettes that give a more literal visual cue. For example, the relationship between the bonds of sin and Christ's bondage ('Von den Stricken) is shown by the contralto soloist bear‑hugging Jesus as she sings; and the path of discipleship (Ich folge') is recommended directly to Peter, who then moves towards silent reconciliation with Jesus, thus reinforcing the opposing effect of his imminent denial.The obbligato instrumentalists move in to join the aria singers on stage in a well‑intentioned show of unity, but this doesn't always work well practically. In a rare and unfortunate moment of clunky direction, the scourging of Jesus, graphically conveyed in that thrilling recitative, is infiltrated by an escapee viola d'amore player who nonchalantly adjusts his music stand and readies his sheet music for the following arioso next to the beaten, floored Christ.
Most interesting of all is the treatment of the crucial role of Evangelist, who moves away from being impartial narrator to become protagonist, observer, motivator and sympathizer, interacting with the other participants and steering the emotional course of the plot. This deeper sense of characterization is one of the most impressive aspects of the performance as it pervades the whole production and exposes otherwise undeveloped feelings. Pilate elicits unexpected sympathy through his evident discomfort over his helpless situation, and his moral stance is thereby improved. And Peter's denials are less boldly defiant than wracked by guilt and torment as made clear by his agonized facial expression and shameful turning away each time. These are small gestures, but they have a powerfay humanizing effect.
The characterization of the chorus is more difficult to make effective, not only because animating a large group of people as one unit inhibits naturalness but also because the function of the chorus may change from one movement to the next. The constant hand gesturing can be a natural extension of the words sung, but it just as often comes across as abstract, distracting or even, in fugal choruses where gesture is linked to particular text, unintentionally amusing; it would have been good to find somewhere an explanation of what it is all supposed to mean.
For a staged interpretation, it's strange to find that the pace of this St John Passion actually feels slower than usual thanks in part to the requirements of dramatizing. Only to listen would completely miss the point, but nevertheless for it to find a place as anything other than an oddity it also needs to stand up musically. Rattle has an excellent cast at his disposal. Mark Padmore is a charismatic Evangelist whose deft interweaving of plot and commentary as well as character development are key to the effectiveness of the staging. Jesus is portrayed with understated authority by Roderick Williams; his delivery face to the floor before crucifixion, with Evangelist and Pilate straining to hear his words, is a powerful representation of a bodily broken man. Pilate is sung more with sensitivity than authority by Christian Gerhaher, who also portrays Peter with pitiable vulnerability, bringing both characters' sense of doubt into sharp relief. Cameos include the unfortunate servant Malchus and later the three women at the feet of the crucified Christ, one of whom, Mary Magdalene ‑ a clearly pregnant Magdalena Koena, playing right into the hands of the conspiracy theorists ‑ then sings 'Es ist vollbracht' with apt desolation.
Inevitably, dramatic needs are allowed to take precedence over musical ones, and this can be a problem, as the integrity of the music is, sometimes compromised for the sake of individual effect. The vocal tone at the start of the opening chorus is less direct and arresting than it might be were the singers not laid flat on their backs and simultaneously coordinating arm movements heavenwards. The soloists too, whether lying down, kneeling, moving around, blindfolded or otherwise constrained, are not immune to loss of vocal control or projection. The irony is that such freedom of movement can actually inhibit rather than enhance expression, and it's regrettable that the music may suffer to make way for it. For example, the flow of secco recitative, which is taken fairly slowly in any case, is interrupted to enable singers to reposition on the stage, and with few exceptions this concession, effective though it may be dramatically, makes little sense musically as chord progressions hang precariously in mid‑air. This is an unfortunate consequence of a bold and generally wellrealized concept.
The physical package is one of the most luxurious I've ever seen; it's also relatively expensive, and this may well discourage casual purchasers uncertain about whether they will like what they find. The film is presented on DVD and Blu‑ray discs, bound in a Iinen-covered case that also contains a book which, for all its full‑page colour photographs and artfully arranged text, contains rather less useful information than a regular CD booklet usually does. Much more informative than the book are the interviews with Rattle and Sellars and with chorus‑master Simon Halsey contained on the discs, and these go some way towards explaining the rationale and approach taken. It's challenging and provocative and it's hard to swallow everything they say ‑ not least their attempt to put the weight of scholarship behind what is really an exercise in performance art ‑ but it's no less difficult to deny that they might just be on to something. The performance will surely be regarded by most as experimental rather than as classic, to be contemplated occasionally rather than,taken to the heart.
you're convinced or not, there is no halfway house: this St John Passion
experienced with ears, eyes and mindwide open.