‘We recognised that there was no way in which the St Matthew Passion could be treated as an opera.’ Thus Jonathan Miller writes in the programme to his staging of Bach’s masterpiece: this is his attempt to re-assert the inherent drama in the Passion story, which can, as he rightly points out, be obscured and weakened by traditional performances.
However, Miller’s idea only partially succeeds: having the chorus leap up looking indignant or horrified or bloodthirsty, the obbligato instrumentalists moving on stage with the singers, or the soloists directly addressing Christ, works better in the second half of the piece, once Jesus has been seized and taken to trial and crucifixion, where the drama is more concrete. In contrast, the first half of the piece is involved with the mystic side of the Passion story, encouraging meditation on the significance of the Last Supper, and here the bringing to life of the action was a distraction.
Musically, proceedings are of a very high quality. Andrew Staples is outstanding as the Evangelist, a consummate communicator and possessed of a glorious voice which he bends to his every will. His role in the production is the most fascinating, and elusive: although he addresses the audience and the choruses throughout, he seems magically separate from the action, in an almost Puck-like way. This makes his interventions all the more telling, his confrontation of Peter after his three-fold betrayal being particularly chilling.
He's supported by a strong quintet of soloists, most impressively tenor Benjamin Hulett (whose effortlessly smooth yet characterful arias are as fine as I’ve ever heard them) and bass Mark Stone – who, apart from being the only performer to even acknowledge the existence of one half of the audience, sings and acts with sincerity and grace. The upper voices are no less worthy: James Laing is dazzling as Peter’s grieving conscience in "Have mercy, Lord"; Ruby Hughes’ unsteady start is quickly forgotten by a joyous "I will give my heart to you", and Sally Bruce-Payne’s doleful arias in the second half are deeply moving.
Hadleigh Adams as Christ is the only disappointment among the soloists. His baritone is warm and burnished, but his stilted delivery of the text and lack of clarity at both ends of the register does little to dismiss the suggestion that his noble yet rugged appearance may have been the strongest reason for his casting.
The chorus, all young singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, are a revelation both in the power of their individual voices and in the finely-tuned blend which they conjured. However, the most important ingredient in the whole show is the equally youthful Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Paul Goodwin. With some nods to period performance – Baroque bows for the strings, and expert playing from specialists Matthew Truscott as leader, Poppy Walshaw on cello and gamba, and Julian Perkins on organ – the crisp yet malleable orchestral sound continually infuses the proceedings with energy, although most of the obbligati are rather disappointing and rough round the edges (excepting Truscott and Walshaw).
As a whole, Miller’s St Matthew Passion does enough to convince of the worth of staging such a work. I think directors need no longer feel that they have to justify such an approach, but they do need to be careful that their additions and decisions don’t obscure what is already a perfectly-constructed entity.