Saint Matthew Passion (Royal Albert Hall)
Iconoclastic director Peter Sellars brings his 2010 staging of Bach's sacred oratorio to the BBC Proms
The ever greater diversity of production styles in the opera house means that more can go wrong. It's not surprising, then, that 'semi-staged' performance has become an increasingly frequent fixture on the concert platform in recent years.
The BBC Proms' opera performances have become an essential summer destination and this year have already seen three superb evenings of Strauss. The fourth semi-staging of the season saw the traffic flowing in the opposite direction, with American director Peter Sellars' 'ritualisation' of Bach's St Matthew Passion, one of the greatest concert works in music history.
Various attempts have been made to draw out the drama of Bach's Passions but the truth is their theatricality is inherent so most impositions, in failing to let the works speak for themselves, fall flat. So powerful is his theatrical instinct, in an age before opera as we know it had fully taken hold, that it can have the most ardent atheist reaching for the Bible (I can speak of that from experience). They grip and insinuate themselves into the audience's mind, without the help of a stage director.
Sellars' celebrated staging, which began life in Berlin in 2010 and has since been committed to DVD, works better than most. This is no hastily-put-together one-off event but a fully rehearsed realisation with committed and highly individualised contributions from solo vocalists, chorus, instrumental soloists and, of course, the incomparable Berlin Philharmonic under the vigorous care of its chief conductor Sir Simon Rattle.
There's so much to impress, not least in Mark Padmore's wonderfully expressive Evangelist, but what stands out above all, perhaps, are the choral singing and characterisations of smaller parts – Judas, Peter, Pilate etc – by the Berlin Radio Choir, who give every bit as much as the principal singers. They are a sea of black, from which the dramatis personae break away like flecks of foam to return silently and effortlessly amidst the ebb and flow of this mighty work.
'an object lesson in bridging the spiritual and physical'
There could hardly be a better line-up of principals, with Padmore joined by Magdalena Kožená's Mary Magdalene, Camilla Tilling's soprano soloist and Christian Gerhaher's Christ. Topi Lehtipuu was the tenor soloist and Eric Owens, replacing the now retired and peerless Thomas Quasthoff in the original cast, as the bass.
The staging never seeks to impose itself, although at times the solemn is threatened by the portentous. Padmore's Evangelist physicalises Christ, while Gerhaher, unseen in the auditorium for the whole of the second part, provides the voice. This gives it an un-literal quality full of gesture – gestic moments even. A particularly effective tableau is the Evangelist/Christ's silent still comforting of Peter following his denial, against Kožená's haunting "Erbarme dich", accompanied by the superb solo violin of Daniel Stabrawa.
This wasn't the most moving St Matthew Passion I've ever heard, not least because of Rattle's almost clinical handling of the BPO – the finesse and contemplation of the performance belied the weight of modern instruments – but it was a wholly impressive musical performance and an object lesson in bridging the spiritual and physical.