A Bach “Ritualization” — Review of a New DVD of the “Passion according to St. Matthew”

By David Berger

It is rare to encounter a moving spiritual experience in the digital realm, but a recently issued DVD of a live staged performance (a “ritualization) of J. S. Bach’s Passion according to St. Matthew recorded in the Berlin Philharmonie provides just such an encounter. As the saying goes, “You must see (and hear) it to believe it.” Imagine a three-hour performance of this mountain peak of universal Lutheran music performed by memory by vocal soloists, chorus, and obbligato instrumentalists, the singing “actors” moving around on stage, interacting even with the audience, enhancing the meaning of and connecting the audience with the Passion story as they do. This writer was glued to the screen for the full three plus hours without a break.

It may be surprising (or not) that the creative mind behind this performance is Peter Sellars, probably best known for his offbeat productions of several Mozart operas a couple of decades ago, e.g., Cosi fan Tutte set in a diner on Cape Cod, Don Giovanni set in Spanish Harlem.

The success of the production (Sellars calls it a “ritualization”) rests on an inimitable mix: Sellars’s unique staging, extraordinary soloists, chorus, and instrumentalists, Simon Rattle’s judicious conducting, the music of Bach, and the most important event in the history of the world. For this St. Matthew Passion, the setting is the grand performing venue of the Berlin Philharmonic, an impressive structure and design that Sellars employs to great advantage. There are no props except for a few large white cubes on stage (and the stage itself), used to various effects by the singing actors. And what singers they are!

The experienced English Bach evangelist, Mark Padmore, carries the main weight of the performance, and not only in his masterful narration – but more on that shortly. The Christus, German baritone Christian Gerhaher, is known for his opera and Lieder recordings. The well-cast aria roles include two relative unknowns: Swedish soprano, Camilla Tilling (obviously, possibly appropriately, pregnant; cf. No. 8, soprano aria), and Finnish tenor, Topi Lehtipuu. The Czech mezzo, Magdalena Kozena, and German bass, Thomas Quasthoff, are more familiar, the latter, not only for his magnificent voice, but also for his physical disabilities. A “thalidomide baby,” he has only vestigial arms and truncated legs.

The most interesting, and probably controversial, aspect of Sellars’s approach is to have the Evangelist enact physically, in a stylized manner, the role of Christ, even as the Christus stands well above the stage, remote and completely removed from the action. From the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, to the scourging, to the crucifixion, and finally to the grave, Padmore uses his body to portray what is happening to Christ. It must have been an altogether exhausting experience, as it is a live recording, thus dramatically and realistically (and intentionally?) emphasizing the physical effects of the trial and crucifixion.

As impressive and affecting as these “special effects” are, what the performance highlights above all is Bach’s genius and mastery in retelling the Passion story. To cite only a few examples:

– The chorus, “So ist mein Jesu nun gefangen” (So has my Jesus now been taken [prisoner]), with solo soprano and alto, voicing despair over the capture of Jesus, has rarely so vividly portrayed the forces of nature and hell, as the believers call on them to take vengeance on the betrayer.

– For the closing chorale of Part I, “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross” (O man, lament your great sin), the chorus members spread out among the audience, addressing each other and members of the audience, personally, with the moving Law / Gospel message of the text.

– The turbo chorus in Part II at the high priest’s palace, mocking Jesus with the words, “Tell us, Christ, who is it who struck you?”, without a pause, movingly segues into the chorale beginning with the same words, but now framed in a mood of repentance: “Who struck you, my Savior? . . . You are not a sinner like us and our children. . . ”

– In the soprano aria, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (For love my Savior wants to die), three obbligato instrumentalists (two oboes d’amore and flute), playing by memory, interact with the soprano, interweaving four individual melodic lines, as only Bach could do.

– The alto aria, “Können Tränen meiner Wangen nichts erlangen” (If the tears on my cheeks can achieve nothing, . . . take my heart), employs all of Kozena’s operatic experience to marvelous devotional effect as she “lifts her heart” as a sacrificial cup to catch the blood from Christ’s wounds.

– The alto aria (again Kozena) with chorus, “Sehet, Jesus hat die Hand, uns zu fassen, ausgespannt” (See, Jesus has stretched out his hand [on the cross] to clasp us), defies description. It must be seen and heard.

– Finally, as one who has sung the concluding bass aria, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein,” many times, this writer can only marvel at Quasthoff’s strikingly affecting rendition.

As the Passion concludes, the Evangelist, prone on one of the cubic platforms, portrays the dead Christ, the other soloists gathered around him. The final chorus, whose length sometimes tests the endurance of the audience, goes by all too quickly.

As is the case with any unusual treatment of a work in the standard religious choral repertoire, not everyone will be pleased with or agree on the specifics: Should Judas have lingered so long with his kiss? If Christ is the central figure of the Passion, should he be portrayed as “above it all”? Why assign Christ’s actions to the Evangelist? Regardless of any disagreements about one detail or another, or even about the propriety of staging (“ritualizing”) a Bach Passion, it is unlikely that a viewer can remain unmoved by the performance. It is not to be missed.

The following review excerpt from The Guardian in the UK may further whet the appetite:

“I challenge you not to be an emotional wreck by the end of it: the singers, especially Mark Padmore as the Evangelist, give the performance of their lives; Sellars sensitively connects the Passion story with the performances and the audience, without distorting Bach’s drama; and Rattle and his players are collectively raised to spooky, spiritual levels of inspiration.” Even more important in this very public context, we know that “God’s word will not return void” (Is. 55:11).

The Sellars / Rattle production is sung in German, but English subtitles in a fine translation, probably by Stewart Spencer, make it possible to follow every turn and twist of the plot. For much of the action, especially as related by the Evangelist, one can simply follow along in the Gospel of Matthew.

Postscript: If memory serves faithfully, a similar, if more sedate, staged performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion appeared on television during a spring in the early 1960s. White-robed figures sang and moved slowly around on the stage to portray the action of the Passion. A passing comment in a biographical sketch of the famed mezzo-soprano, Maureen Forrester, may refer to this performance: “In 1963 she sang in the NBC TV production of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion.” (Was it part of the NBC Television Opera Theatre series?) More recently (2011), Jonathan Miller staged the work with the National Theatre in England. As the promo put it, “Jonathan Miller strips away all traditional performance conventions of this sacred work: it is sung, in a new English translation by the conductor Paul Goodwin, by soloists and a choir – all casually dressed – who interact with the full orchestra of musicians. The result is a production conveying the full power and overwhelming drama of Bach’s final and most revered Passion.”

If Sellars’s production is not the only attempt to stage the St. Matthew, it appears to be the only such performance available on a video recording, in both standard DVD and Blue-ray formats – over three hours of performance and fifty minutes of additional material on a single disc.

Berliner Philharmoniker BPH 120011 (DVD) or 120012 (BlueRay)

Video trailer also available at this link

Watch for additional links embedded in the video.

David Berger recently retired from the faculty of Concordia Seminary, after serving for many years as the Director of the Library. He is currently principal bass of the Collegium Vocale of St. Louis and of the American Kantorei (Bach at the Sem) at Concordia Seminary.






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