Sunday, 7 April 2019

Making Bach's music visible: the St John Passion staged by Peter Sellars with Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

Bach: St John Passion - Roderick Williams, Andrew Staples, Choir of the Enlightenment - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bach: St John Passion - Roderick Williams, Andrew Staples, Choir of the Enlightenment
Royal Festival Hall (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bach St John Passion; Mark Padmore, Roderick Williams, Camilla Tilling, Christine Rice, Andrew Staples, Georg Nigl, dir: Peter Sellars, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, cond: Simon Rattle; Royal Festival Hall Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 2 April 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Staged by Peter Sellars, this was a very human rendering of the Passion

"Show us by your Passion that you, the Son of God, even in the deepest humiliation, [have] been exalted", starts the St John Passion (translation from the printed programme). “Zeig uns” (show us) the gory details of the crucifixion, away from sacraments and metaphor. Bach continued the efforts of his predecessor at Leipzig to involve the men and women of the city, casting his congregation as participants in the action as well as onlookers, making it clear the Passion story is directly relevant to them.

Peter Sellars' staging of Bach's St John Passion came to the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 2 April 2019, with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Choir of the Enlightenment. Mark Padmore was the Evangelist, Roderick Williams was Christus with soloists Camilla Tilling, Christine Rice, Andrew Staples and Georg Nigl.

Bach: St John Passion - Sir Simon Rattle, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bach: St John Passion - Sir Simon Rattle, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Royal Festival Hall (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Simon Rattle is quoted in the programme as saying some of the chorus writing has a level of dissonance and experimentation that is like Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring – also a document of a ritual. This Passion certainly had a ritual quality as far as the audience was concerned. The people I eavesdropped on knew what they were getting: Rattle, Sellars, OAE and the cast of soloists. And anyone who has seen the Rattle/Sellars St Matthew Passion [see Robert's review of the 2014 BBC Proms performance] with the Berlin Phil (though I have only seen it through the camera director’s eyes) may know that this performance was called a “ritualisation”.

Full disclosure: I am perfectly happy with a words-&-music-only St John Passion and have been to some wonderful performances [see Ruth's review of the St John Passion at last year's Holy Week Festival at St John's Smith Square]. I went in cold and not 100% sure what the Sellars treatment would add.

The orchestra were positioned upstage left and the chorus mostly stage right, the focus of the action mainly a pool of light downstage with a thurible suspended above it. Instrumental soloists moved around the stage for certain numbers and the piece began with the upper string players standing up and swaying to give the impression of a churning sea. The opening fugue had the singers lying on the floor, accompanying their words with hand movements. Mark Padmore as the Evangelist led a blindfolded Jesus (Roderick Williams) around the stage. At moments the crowd surged forward to get a better look at what was happening and at other times sat on the risers upstage. Simon Rattle moved from orchestra to chorus and sat down observing the action for the recitatives and smaller ensembles.

Bach: St John Passion - Choir of the Enlightenment, Sir Simon Rattle, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bach: St John Passion - Choir of the Enlightenment, Sir Simon Rattle, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Royal Festival Hall (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Cries of “Kreuzige!” (crucify) and the panic-stricken “Wohin?(nach Golgatha) gave a realistic sense of chaos and confusion. The ear wanting musical perfection and to hear every word would have found it rather frustrating at times. But an angry, bloodthirsty crowd is not going to sound very neat. This was a very human rendering of the Passion. I couldn’t help noticing the Levi’s label on Roddy Williams’ black jeans; this Christus wears ordinary clothes, and the casting of lots for them was particularly disturbing – the chorus are not satisfied just to crucify him, they want souvenirs as well.

I would have liked to hear Georg Nigl singing standing up, and likewise would have liked Camilla Tilling to “just sing”. Christus’ “Es ist vollbracht” is usually followed by a long pause. Here the downward phrase was segue’d by the heartbreaking viola da gamba solo (Richard Tunnicliffe) and Christine Rice’s devastating and devastated aria. Very powerful.

Some of the translations seemed a little wilful: “Jünger” were “students” rather than the usual disciples and “Diener” were “agents”. I am not sure what that added. The surtitles stayed up for much longer than usual so we could dwell on the written text without hearing any words.

It was a long evening: a 7pm start and it finished after 9.30, there were long long pauses after some of the recits, but Mark Padmore’s gaze kept us focused for all that time. At times I felt the cavernous space of the Festival Hall and the period instruments and young voices couldn’t sustain some of the slow tempi – but I assume the “adrift” atmosphere was deliberate.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford
Bach: St John Passion - Christine Rice Andrew Staples, Roderick Williams, Mark Padmore, Choir of the Enlightenment, Sir Simon Rattle, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Tristram Kenton)
Bach: St John Passion - Christine Rice Andrew Staples, Roderick Williams, Mark Padmore, Choir of the Enlightenment,
Sir Simon Rattle, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment - Royal Festival Hall (Photo Tristram Kenton)
The DVD of Peter Sellars' staging of Bach's St John Passion with Sir Simon Rattle conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra is available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • More than just Costly Canaries: Bridget Cunningham on re-capturing Handel and the importance of research  - interview
  • Bach CD round up: Violin, piano, harpsichord, organ - recent instrumental discs - CD review
  • A stirring revival: Hubert Parry's Judith in a triumphant performance from William Vann, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Mozart Players at the Royal Festival Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Beyond Frankenstein: I chat to Emmy award winning sound-designer and composer Mark Grey - Interview
  • Brilliant re-invention: Handel's Berenice from London Handel Festival & Royal Opera (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Unrelenting darkness and miasma in the East End labyrinth: premiere of Jack the Ripper at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • From newspaper article to opera: our journey creating our new opera The Gardeners  - feature article
  • Keeping it fresh: conductor David Hill on the challenges of performing Bach's St Matthew Passion annually with the Bach Choir - interview
  • Period charm & fizzing performance: Messager's Les p'tites Michu from Palazzetto Bru Zane  (★★★★) - Cd review
  • A remarkable work of reconstruction: Opera Rara's world premiere recording of Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida (★★★★) - CD review
  • Iestyn Davies & the viol consort Fretwork in Michael Nyman & Henry Purcell at Temple Church (★★★★) - concert review 
  • Dance Maze: new chamber music by Tom Armstrong on Resonus Classics (★★★½) - CD review
  • Home

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