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J. S. Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1748)
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.

J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion

Evangelist: Rufus Müller; Jesus: Curtis Streetman; with Suzie LeBlanc, Phyllis Pancella, Daniel Taylor, Nils Brown, Stephen Varcoe. Conducted by Paul Goodwin. Staged by Jonathan Miller. BAM Harvey Theater, performance of April 24.


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based on stage plays (Esther, Athalia, Hercules), and the laws against staging Bible stories in England were only withdrawn in the twentieth century — the arguments for presenting them fully staged are clear and often convincing, as are staged productions.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.

John Yohalem

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