Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment/Rattle, Royal Festival Hall
Should Bach’s Passions be staged? They increasingly are, and there are good supporting arguments, particularly in the case of the St John Passion which most fully meets the Lutheran requirement that congregations should experience the trial, death, and resurrection of Christ with the utmost immediacy. The counter-argument is a simple one: music as dramatic as this needs no help from a theatre director. It is itself as vivid a piece of theatre as could ever be imagined.
With the Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment such thoughts surface as soon as the work embarks on its churning sea of sound. While the chamber orchestra gets going stage-right, the choir arrange themselves stage-left like a black-clad troupe of dancers, lying down and writhing to the writhing of the music. Then, directed by Peter Sellars, they begin one of the gesturing hand-ballets which are this American director’s hallmark. But since these are choristers not dancers, some have trouble scrambling to their feet, and our attention is drawn to them and away from Bach’s sound-world; the massively-concentrated focus of this divine curtain-raiser is thus dissipated.
But things settle down when Mark Padmore’s Evangelist begins to narrate in tones of compelling authority, with Roderick Williams as a kneeling blindfold Christ. It’s impossible to separate this ancient story from what we see and hear in news-casts from Syria and Iraq today, so close are the parallels – Peter’s cutting-off of a gaoler’s ear in the opening brawl, here vividly mimed, being a typically squalid touch. Williams is a passive figure, occasionally breaking into patient, regretful song; Christine Rice’s gorgeous aria ‘Von den Stricken meiner Sunden’, and Andrew Staples’s equally gorgeous rendering of the aria in which Christ’s scourged back is compared to all the colours of the rainbow, are just two of the vocal high-points in Part One. Soprano Camilla Tilling’s delicately-floated high notes and Georg Nigl’s sonorous baritone mark the opposite poles in this perfectly-balanced vocal mix. Those crowning arias ‘Betrachte, meine Seel’ and ‘Es ist vollbracht!’ (‘It is finished’) are beautiful beyond words.
Meanwhile the changing instrumental continuos – two oboes, two flutes, a flute and an oboe da caccia, and a viola da gamba – are exquisite; Padmore’s voice becomes positively radiant as the work’s conclusion approaches, while the choir produces an exultant sound. Conductor Simon Rattle is in constant movement back and forth across the stage as he energises each group in turn. By the end all doubts about the staging have dissolved: this event really is an act of communal devotion.
It’s now going on tour to Luxembourg, Hamburg, and Frankfurt, but meanwhile the Southbank audience can savour a straight concert performance of Bach’s other Easter masterpiece, the St Matthew Passion, sung by the Bach Choir with an equally star-studded line-up of soloists on Sunday April 7.