Sunday, 27 March 2016

Simply remarkable - The Passion from Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen

Anita Ferguson as Jesus and Joshua Ellicott as Evangelist in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Anita Ferguson as Jesus and Joshua Ellicott as Evangelist in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
JS Bach, James MacMillan The Passion; Streetwise Opera, the Sixteen, dir: Penny Woolcock, cond: Harry Christophers; Campfield Market Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 25 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Visceral, intense and simply remarkable; promenade production mixing amateurs and professions reinvents Bach's passion as a modern parable

Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
The Passion was in many ways an unlikely event. A 70 minute digest version of Bach's St Matthew Passion performed an huge deserted market hall, Campfield Market in Manchester (on Good Friday, 25 March 2016), which had no theatrical facilities but bags of space. (You can see the whole event on YouTube).The performers mixed amateurs from Streetwise Opera with members of The Sixteen, the main body of The Sixteen performing from the sides from music but the soloists and members of Streetwise Opera dramatising the events of the Passion. Jesus was played by eight different members of Streetwise Opera. Joshua Ellicott sang the Evangelist, the arias were sung by Jeremy Budd, Ben Davies, Hannah Pedley and Kirsty Hopkins from the Sixteen, some of the other singers including Jonathan Ainscough (Peter) and Gavin Bailey (Pilate) work regularly with Streetwise Opera but the rest of the soloists came from Streetwise Opera. The production, directed by Penny Woolcock and designed by Dick Bird, was huge; a promenade affair with the audience standing and video images of the performers in close-up projected onto huge screens, the result was viscerally confusing in the way the events of the Passion would have been when experienced by the protagonists. At the centre, Harry Christophers conducted an instrumental ensemble of string quartet, two flutes, and two oboes with Christopher Glynn on piano continuo (RVW would have been pleased). And there was a new ending, with music by James MacMillan setting texts created in workshops with the members of Streetwise Opera, poetic meditations of life after the apocalypse.

Abigail Kitching as Jesus in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Abigail Kitching as Jesus in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion
Photo by Graeme Cooper
There were a lot of disparate elements to the production. The core of Streetwise Opera's activities is a series of regular workshops across the country for people who have experienced homelessness. Two of these formed the core of the Streetwise Opera performances, and they have been working towards this for over a year, including having regular workshops with the four soloists from the Sixteen to build up trust and a sense of common purpose in the performance, so that that four professional singers were more embedded than just being flown in. Rehearsals on the production cranked up to full scale just a few weeks before opening night, the amount of time in the real venue (where everything had to be created from scratch) was limited. And the multiple layers of the production with the professional choir and orchestra only came together relatively late on in the process.

I detail all this to make it clear what a remarkable undertaking this was, and how much of a minor miracle the performance became. The performers from Streetwise Opera had strong sense of identification with the story and all had a clear sense of taking control of the stage. Talking to people afterwards, it was remarkable how affected the professionals had been by the intensity of the performance and one commented to me that the event just would not have been the same without the performers from Streetwise Opera.

Kirsty Hopkins in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Kirsty Hopkins in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion
Photo by Graeme Cooper
One of Penny Woolcock and Dick Bird's influences was Pasolini's film The Gospel of St Matthew, made with amateur forces, but for me the staging invoked memories of another powerful promenade production. In the 1970's, I attended performances of Bill Bryden's production of The Mysteries given by the National Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival. Performed in a promenade production, they brought the action close to the audience and made you feel part of the story. This causes problems, the audience needs managing and visuals can sometimes be a problem, but I cannot think of any more moving way of staging the passion story. There were moments at Campfield Market Hall when you felt that given a slightly longer rehearsal period, the audience could have been given a clearer experience with the solo moments more visible. There was much of Jesus's betrayal and arrest that I could not see and the video links, providing huge closeups on the screens at the back of the hall, seemed to miss out some of the key moments. It did not help that there were also camera operators rushing around preparing for the broadcast on Channel 4 on Sunday and frankly getting in the way of the audience's appreciating the performance.

Ultimately none of this mattered, as we were drawn in to the action. The confusion of Jesus' betrayal and arrest was followed by the glorious duet So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen (the work was in fact sung in English) sung by Kirsty Hopkins and Hannah Pedley and arising directly out of the confusion. In boiling the work down to just 70 minutes, we lost a lot of music but Penny Woolcock and Harry Christophers managed to keep a remarkable amount (most of the surviving arias were cut), so that this was still Bach's passion and you felt that this version would make a very good introduction for those experiencing the work for the first time.

The Sixteen in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
The Sixteen in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion.
Photo by Graeme Cooper
At the centre of everything was the remarkable performance of the Evangelist by Joshua Ellicott. Dressed in modern clothes, unlike the main performers enacting the passion, he was in a sense interpreting the events for us, the modern audience. He created an almost visceral connection, singing with a remarkable intensity but never letting go of the sense of line and word which is the essential to any Evangelist. The role of Jesus was split between eight performers, Darryl Flanagan, Gavin Underhill, Msurshima Yongo, Anita Ferguson, Abigail Kitching, Ian Campbell, Chloe Buckley and Jean Harmon, the division bringing a real sense of Jesus as everywoman/man. Each individual sang a fragment of Jesus's recitative, with all joining together for key moments. It has to be admitted that the performances showed how tricky Bach's writing can be, and there was a significant gap between the performance of these singers as Jesus and that of the professionals. But each performer brought a real personal sense of commitment to the role, which went some way to transcending individual limitations into a greater whole. In some places all eight sang Jesus's words, and I felt that more could have been made of this.

The performers were effectively in three groups; the professional choir in modern black, sometimes discreetly at the back and sometimes taking centre stage, the disciples mixing the Streetwise performers with the four embedded professional soloists, and the high priest and sanhedrin were also Streetwise performers. From amongst these we had some striking solo moments.

Msurshima Yongo as Jesus in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Msurshima Yongo as Jesus in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion.
Photo by Graeme Cooper
Matt Reid (one of the Streetwise performers) made a remarkable, truculantly intense Judas with no sense of embarrassment in performance and a strongly dynamic stage presence.  Jonathan Ainscough (a professional singer who works with the Streetwise Opera workshops) was a strongly personal Peter, and Gavin Bailey (a workshop leader with Streetwise Opera) made wonderfully conflicted Pilate, with Catherine Bowen-Colthurst as his troubled wife. David Morgan was a real bruiser of a Barabbas, creating a strong sense of personality in a small moment. David Owen-Lewis (a workshop leader with Streetwise Opera) seemed to be having the time of his life as a Caiaphas who revelled in the nastiness he was creating.

Despite the cuts, we got a remarkable amount of the solo material, and the four soloists Kirsty Hopkins, Hannah Pedley, Jeremy Budd and Ben Davies gave performances of remarkable dramatic involvement. These were not solos sung from the sidelines, but had a visceral connection to the drama, arising from it and connecting to it. All four sang with poise and a sense of clarity and line that we expect from the Sixteen's soloists, and admirable diction.

The instrumental ensemble made the nine instruments really count, giving a strong yet stylish performance. Central to this was Christopher Glynn's piano continuo; the instrument chosen because the performers had rehearsed to a piano and it was felt it would be too disturbing to switch to a chamber organ at the last minute. This was Bach, not quite as we knew it, but Bach all the same and no less moving for the changes in timbre. For the instrumental obbligatos, the soloists got up and joined the singers creating a real dynamic feel.

At the end, we had eight Jesus's with eight crosses turning individual drama into a powerful communal moment. James MacMillan's final movement, based on Bach's harmonies which came just before it, had everyone joining together. The costumed singers slewed off their robes and all stood in a half circle enjoining us to almost participate, making a communal end. There was one other communal moment, one of the chorales was printed in the programme and we all joined in, a powerful moment.

Disciples in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
Disciples in Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen's The Passion. Photo by Graeme Cooper
It is testament to the power of the performance that at the end, the audience didn't leave. Granted, many probably knew performers but there was a sense of not letting the moment go. The performance is being broadcast on Channel Four, and will be available on-line but this was one of those events when you really had to be there.

The photos used in the article were taken at the dress rehearsal. A 60 minute edited version of The Passion will be broadcast on Easter Sunday, 27 March 2016 on BBC 4 (and available for 30 days on BBC iPlayer) and the full version will be available on Streetwise Opera's YouTube channel.


The Passion
Music by JS Bach and James MacMillan
Directed by Penny Woolcock
Conducted by Harry Christophers
Presented by Streetwise Opera and The Sixteen in association with Home

Darryl Flanagan - Jesus
Gavin Underhill - Jesus
Msurshima Yongo - Jesus
Anita Ferguson - Jesus
Abigail Kitching - Jesus
Ian Campbell - Jesus
Chloe Buckley – Jesus
Jean Harmon – Jesus
Joshua Ellicott – Evangelist
Matt Reid - Judas
Jonathan Ainscough – Peter
David Morgan – Barabbas
Kirsty Hopkins – Disciple Soprano Soloist
Hannah Pedley - Disciple Mezzo-Soprano Soloist
Jeremy Budd - Disciple Tenor Soloist
Ben Davies - Disciple Bass Soloist
James Hughes – Disciple
Steve Scallon – Disciple
Gareth Smith – Disciple
Amy Ward – Disciple
Mark Ward – Disciple
David Owen-Lewis – Caiaphas
Gavin Bailey – Pilate
Catherine Bowen-Colthurst – Pilate’s Wife
Andy Crossley - High Priest
Ray Goodwin - High Priest
Stephen Lee - High Priest
Janine Obermaier - High Priest
Jack Quarshie - High Priest
Ian Donnelly – Witness
Peter Twigg – Witness
Elise Nurre Dye – Maid and Witness
Brian Bristow – Court Follower
Danny Collins – Court Follower

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