20 Jun 2009
Bach's St. Matthew Passion at BAM
To the sorrow of all lovers of baroque opera, J.S. Bach never composed for the stage.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.
I had last seen Arabella as part of the Munich Opera Festival’s Richard Strauss Week in 2008. It is not, I am afraid, my favourite Strauss opera; in fact, it is probably my least favourite. However, I am always willing to be convinced.
Some time ago in San Francisco there was an Aida starring Luciano Pavarotti, now in Orange it was Carmen starring Jonas Kaufmann. No, not tenors in drag just great tenors whose names simply outshine the title roles.
To the sorrow of all lovers of baroque opera, J.S. Bach never composed for the stage.
He does not seem to have had any interest in the operatic form and, too, he never lived in a major court city (such as Dresden or Berlin), where an opera company would have been part of any composer’s focus — much less an urban center with its own opera tradition, such as Hamburg, Venice or London. Why, then, would we want to have one of his grander compositions — in this case, the St. Matthew Passion — enacted on stage, with the singers playing parts, when Bach seems to have intended the music and the message to reach our ears without benefit of stage pictures at all?
Handel’s oratorios are sometimes based on stage plays (Esther, Athalia, Hercules), and the laws against staging Bible stories in England were only withdrawn in the twentieth century — the arguments for presenting them fully staged are clear and often convincing, as are staged productions. Besides, Handel had plenty of stage experience and knew how to run the machine as well as anybody. Bach never got that experience.
What has been achieved in Jonathan Miller’s long-celebrated staging of St. Matthew, recently presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is an emphasis on the story to vie with the music, an urgency to the unfolding drama, an intensification of the (perhaps obscure) message of the crucifixion. The singers are acting, and they are catching our eyes, and they are putting a force behind the meaning of the music that is rare in even the most intense concert or church performance — they are underlining the theatricality of ritual, the ritual nature of theater — they are pulling us into an event of two thousand years ago with the intent of obliging us to think about it, take it seriously, of not permitting us to pass it off, whether we agree with Bach’s (and St. Matthew’s) interpretation or not. Further to bring it home to an Anglophone audience, the work is sung not in Bach’s German but in Robert Shaw’s singable English translation.
Since the singers are in street clothes of our era (who ever thought of Jesus as a rather pudgy fellow in a red sweatshirt? — the dignified Curtis Streetman), the result is to make the story very “lived,” very immediate, to highlight the emotions of which Bach’s melodies sing. My date, a Christian lady of a certain age, said it added to her appreciation of the story that so many of the chorales were hymns she is used to singing in church. I associate them with concerts of Bach — but perhaps this ties us to something like the feelings of the audience for the original classical tragedies, when the Aeschylean chorus interrupts the action to sing of some relevant myth or other. We were getting an active story, portrayed by modern-dress “actors,” while the chorus gave us their asides as well as their active participation in the drama’s many small roles. But this theatricality was intentionally undercut, not only by costume but by positioning — the players, orchestra and singers, sat in the center of the stage, and audience members were seated around them, indistinguishable — except they were the ones with programs. We were asked to see this as a tale of the people, of ourselves, being told among ourselves, by performers who were also ourselves. Theater and ritual alike were deemphasized.
We could imagine that we were in Jerusalem that holy week, seeing these things as they happened — as Bach perhaps wished us to imagine ourselves. This called for singers (chorus as well as soloists) capable of acting out the story as well as singing it, and the self-deception allowing us to imagine we could sing as well as Rufus Müller (the Evangelist), Suzie LeBlanc and Daniel Taylor. I mention LeBlanc and Taylor particularly, because I am familiar with their work in various early music venues, and because both of them were exceptionally fine in their arias in St. Matthew: clear, focused voices so clear and full of belief as to give the illusion they were singing at no more than conversational volume.
For believers, I imagine, this approach would pack a thrilling punch. For those of any faith who believe in Bach and in the expressive possibilities of the voice, it was a joy to be part of so powerful a performance.