Friday, 6 March 2020

Communal experience & the re-telling of familiar stories: Bach's St John Passion from English Touring Opera

Bach: St John Passion - English Touring Opera (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Bach: St John Passion - English Touring Opera (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Bach St John Passion; English Touring Opera, Jonathan Peter Kenny; Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 March 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Bach's passion becomes a dramatic re-telling in this absorbing concert staging with local & community involvement

Bach: St John Passion - English Touring Opera (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Bach: St John Passion
English Touring Opera (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Over the last few years, English Touring Opera (ETO) has included Bach's passions alongside its operatic season, at each venue working with local choirs. For its Spring 2020 tour, ETO is performing Bach's St John Passion in a concert staging which is visiting both theatres and churches. We caught English Touring Opera's performance of Bach's St John Passion at the Hackney Empire on Thursday 5 March 2020, with Jonathan Peter Kenny conducting the Old Street Band, with soloists Susanna Hurrell, Martha Jones, Tim Morgan, Richard Dowling, Thomas Elwin, Stephan Loges and Bradley Travis, plus Collegium Musicum of London Chamber Choir, Hackney Singers, Hackney Choral, and London Youth Boys' Choir. The concert staging was directed by James Conway and used, I think, the set from Handel's Giulio Cesare.

We sometimes forget that the original performances of Bach's passions were a communal events. With performances by major choirs, ensembles and soloists we lose sight of the fact that originally the soprano solos were sung by Grete's youngest whilst Mathias' cousin was the Evangelist - the performers were part of the community, the story was familiar even if the manner of its telling was not (it was Bach who introduced the more operatic elements into Leipzig's passion performances) and of course the chorales were all familiar melodies. Something of this element was crucial to ETO's performance of the St John Passion, the choirs were local - Hackney Singers is a non-auditioned community choir, and both Hackney Choral and London Youth Boys' Choir are based on the transformative effect of communal music making on young people. And for those audience members attending the other operas in ETO's Spring season, the soloist line up featured Cleopatra, Dorabella, Giulio Cesare, two Ferrandos, Don Alfonso, Curio and Mr Higginbottom in The Extraordinary Adventures of You & Me (ETO's Spring 2020 opera for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities).


Despite the presence of the period instrument Old Street Band, this was not a performance which aimed to recreate something of Bach's original performances but instead to present a very personal and contemporary re-telling of the drama. This was present from the outset with Jonathan Peter Kenny's vivid direction of the opening chorus, sung with extraordinary drama by Collegium Musicum. The choirs were split with Collegium Musicum at the back of the stage mostly singing the choruses and turbae, the children at the side of the stage singing some choruses and chorales and the Hackney Singers in the auditorium singing the chorales. There were also moments where just the soloists sang the choral parts. The other distinctive factor was that the orchestra was on stage, the soloists wandering in and around it so that Jonathan Peter Kenny's rather dramatic style of direction became almost part of the theatre.

Bach: St John Passion - English Touring Opera (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Bach: St John Passion - English Touring Opera (Photo Andreas Grieger)
The soloists each had a crib, but this was very much sung and acted rather than being score bound (there was just one slip). It became a communal re-telling of the story, rather than acting out the passion. Stephan Loges played Christus, a very intense, dramatic figure, and he also gave a vivid account of the bass aria 'Himmel reisse, Welt erbebe' and a moving performance of 'Mein teurer Heiland'. Bradley Travis was an equally dramatic Pilate, making the scenes between the two (some of the work's most operatic moments) rather striking. Travis also gave good account of the bass aria 'Eilt, ihr angefoch'nen Seelen' (with the chorus part sung by four soloists).

The role of the Evangelist was split between all the soloists, heightening the idea that this was a communal retelling. Sometimes short phrases were thrown between singers, rather than dividing it up into bleeding chunks, and this only served to increase the dramatic tension.

The performance was performed without an interval and the resulting 90 or so minutes was totally engrossing and engaging. It was sung in German with the chorales in English, translated by a widely varied group of people from different faiths and backgrounds.

Susanna Hurrell gave an appealingly bright account of 'Ich folge dir gleichfalls' and was rather moving in 'Zerfliesse, mein Herze', Martha Jones and Tim Morgan shared alto duty, and she gave a mellow, soft-grained account of 'Von den Stricken meiner Sunden' whilst he was profoundly intense and admirably still in 'Es is vollbract'. Richard Dowling was suitably dramatic in 'Ach, mein Sinn' whilst Tom Elwin gave a finely committed performance of 'Erwage, wie sein blutgefarber Rucken'.

This wasn't a performance by Bach specialists, and the performance styles were very obviously quite operatically influenced. But more than the individual arias, the performance was about communal experience and the re-telling of familiar stories giving the well known arias a sense of a different context. It helped that when we moved to the chorales, and the singers in the auditorium joined in, there was a sense of widening the participation into the theatre itself. Certainly, I found the whole event engaging and absorbing, you got caught up in this very personal drama and completely forgot you were spending 90 minutes or so confined to one of the Hackney Empire's rather cramped seats!

Bach: St John Passion - English Touring Opera (Photo Andreas Grieger)
Bach: St John Passion - English Touring Opera (Photo Andreas Grieger)
I hope that the performances of the St John Passion in Buxton, Chester, Beverley, Northampton, Kewsick, Lancaster, Durham, Exeter and Truro help people to discover this great work. Bach's St John Passion is on tour with Mozart's Cosi fan tutte and Handel's Giulio Cesare at a venue near you between now and 27 June. See English Touring Opera's website for details.

Update: My apologies for getting my sopranos confused, and thanks for the prompt response from Tom Elwin for the correction.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Strong individual performances in the revival of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin (★★★★) - opera review
  • His message still resonates with us today: artistic director Marios Papadopoulos discusses the Oxford Philharmonic's year-long Beethoven Festival  - Interview
  • Still in fine form: Meyerbeer's Le prophète returns to the Deutsche Oper, Berlin with Gregory Kunde back in the title role (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Pianist Iyad Sughayer in Khachaturian, Mozart and Liszt for the City Music Foundation (★★★★) - concert review
  • Spareness, clarity, quirkiness: William Howard plays Howard Skempton (★★★★) - cd review
  • The cello sonata from early Beethoven to Shostakovich: Anglo-French duo Lydia Shelley & Nicolas Stavy at Conway Hall - concert review
  • The shipwrecked world, and nature extinct: Musica Antica Rotherhithe gives the UK premiere of Michelangelo Falvetti's Il Diluvio Universale in aid of Operation Noah  - concert review
  • The two are very different disciplines: best known as a film & TV composer, I chat to Stuart Hancock about 'Raptures' his new disc of concert music  - interview
  • The art of the lute: Thomas Dunford and the Academy of Ancient Music put the Baroque lute in the spotlight from concertos to trio sonatas and a solo suite (★★★★) - concert review
  • Wild Waves & Woods from Sweden: the Västerås Sinfonietta at Kings Place  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Ductus est Jesus: music from the Portuguese Golden Age from Gramophone Award-winning Portuguese ensemble Cupertinos (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Welcome rarity: Verdi's Luisa Miller receives a strong musical performance in Barbora Horáková's new production at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month