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Webcast review: Peter Sellars directs Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion with Berlin Philharmonic

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Editor’s note: ArtsCriticATL is delighted to publish articles, reviews and essays by Atlanta artists and leaders in the community. This is the second piece by Jeff Baxter, the choral administrator of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, who’s also a tenor in the group and was an assistant to Robert Shaw. Baxter’s deep history with Bach’s choral music and his anticipation of the ASOC’s next “theater of a concert” performance makes his observations especially noteworthy. — Pierre

By JEFFREY BAXTER

Last week, the Berlin Philharmonic gave a semi-staged, or “ritualized,” performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew” Passion, which was webcast live on the orchestra’s exceptional window to the world, their Digital Concert Hall. The April 11 performance is now archived on the Philharmonic site.

In anticipation, I was reminded of an amusing story involving a disastrous attempt at staging the work in New York in 1943 at the Metropolitan Opera, with conductor Leopold Stokowski, dancers choreographed by George Balanchine and a chorus prepared by Robert Shaw. The production, which was uniformly panned, involved a representation of Jesus as a wandering beam of yellow light; the character Mary Magdalene was pantomimed by the silent movie star Lillian Gish.

Shaw recalled that his association with this event caused an awkward silence from composer Paul Hindemith, a few years later, when Shaw first approached him about commissioning a major choral work that became “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The implication was clear: How dare you mess with Bach?

Yet the “St. Matthew” Passion has a long history of dramatic interpretations — from grandiose Victorian performances (often with cuts and expanded orchestration) to one-to-a-part deconstructions from the early-music revivalists. Hans von Bülow, the first music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, described the “Matthew” as “an oratorio in operatic clothing.” Even in Bach’s lifetime his church employers were wary, recommending upon his hiring that he abstain from writing “theatrical music.”

The Berliners’ decision to engage American stage director Peter Sellars for this “St. Matthew” stemmed from their earlier successful collaboration in John Adams’ opera “A Flowering Tree.” In addition to his collaborations with Adams, in various guises — from “Nixon in China” to “Doctor Atomic” — Sellars is well known as a polarizing director, for his infamous modern-day settings of the three Mozart-da Ponte operas (“Figaro” set in Trump Towers, Don Giovanni as a ghetto drug dealer) as well as dramatic presentations of Bach cantatas for the late American mezzo soprano Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson.

Hunt-Lieberson’s supreme dramatic gifts inspired some of Sellars’ greatest work, including the iconic 1996 staging of Handel’s “Theodora” at Glyndebourne, which is luckily preserved on video. Until this Berlin “St. Matthew” Passion performance, “Theodora” was seen by many as Sellars’ most memorable production.

But why a “ritualization”? In program notes, Sellars explains his idea: “Bach wrote his masterpiece, the ‘St. Matthew’ Passion, not as a concert work, and not as a work of theater, but as a transformative ritual reaching across time and space, uniting disparate, and dispirited communities.…” In Germany, the piece has a history of performances in liturgical settings, not in the concert hall, where it’s most often heard in the U.S. “A secular context, perhaps, offers this work other possibilities, and other audiences,” Sellars writes. “The ritual ‘staging’ for these performances is primarily focused on Bach’s spatial imagination and the moral energies that his [rhetorical] dialogues and juxtapositions release.”

He continues: “Bach represents the universe in this piece with 360 degrees of cosmic forces — two orchestras face each other, two choruses face each other, with the hovering high altitude aerial presence of children singing on behalf of the unborn.… He begins with a spectacular image of the divided self, our divided selves, distance and separation calling across a void. We are of two minds, and out of sync with ourselves. But with the chorales, which embody the process of realization that somebody else’s story is in fact our own, Bach holds out the promise of unison on the way to unity. Bach’s plan of narrative, call and response is interrupted by spontaneous moments of inspired individual breakthrough, and shocking moments of collective impulse followed by second thoughts and complete reversals.”

Sellars took advantage of this in the in-the-round setting of the Berlin Philharmonic, a unique venue ideally suited for such a conception. He placed the performers in the center of the action at all times, not facing “out” to the audience, but drawing the audience in to the inner world of the music’s drama.

The costume and set design — performers in dark street clothes moving about a few unadorned wooden box-podiums — had a look similar to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s “Theater of a Concert” presentation of the Bach “St. John” Passion a few seasons ago, with Anne Patterson’s scenic designs and Robert Spano conducting. In Berlin, a solitary glaring light bulb suspended above center stage lent the effect of both a simple stage rehearsal light and a hanging ecclesiastical fixture.

Most notably in the performance, all the singers (chorus and soloists) performed from memory — no small feat, especially in the case of English tenor Mark Padmore, who  brilliantly sang the role of the Evangelist. This role — which consists almost entirely of declamatory secco recitative — was not conducted by Simon Rattle and, moreover, Padmore physically portrayed all the dramatic “business” that he sings about: Jesus’ scourging, Judas’ betrayal with a kiss, etc.

The most noticeable part of Sellars’ “ritualization” involved having the baritone Gerhaher, who sang one of the few named “roles” (that of Jesus), perform his part stationary from a balcony just above stage right. He never interacted physically with any of the cast, thus enabling an atmosphere of reflection and remembrance — and allowing the emphasis to be put on the “remember-ers.”

The excellent Berlin Radio Chorus (about 60-strong, with 30 per choir) mostly sang from their respective right and left stage positions (sometimes seated, sometimes standing by section in certain fugal passages), except in several key dramatic moments. They began and ended the Passion surrounding the Evangelist at center stage, and — most surprisingly — “fled” at the end of Part I (on cue, as the Evangelist describes the Apostles’ fleeing Jesus in Gethsemane) in a noisy, fast stampede to the upper reaches of the house, where they surrounded the audience with a moving, distant rendition of “O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß” (“O man, bewail your grievous sin”).

But perhaps the most gripping and innovative element crafted by Sellars was the integration of the instrumental obbligato players into the inner drama of the reflective arias and duets performed by the vocal soloists. As Sellars writes: “Bach’s vocal soloists take arduous journeys through winding, twisted, extreme vocal lines, encountering obstacles, hesitating, starting again, trying another way, gathering force, repeating, reinforcing, losing, and finally gaining the repose that they have been searching for which was awaiting them all along in their own hearts. Bach offers each exposed and vulnerable soloist extraordinary companions for the road — courageous instrumentalists who match the vocalists in daring, intensity, and tenderness, offering radiant examples of sustained compassion.” At many points these instrumental “companions” stepped forward, both with and sometimes directly to their vocal counterparts in very close physical proximity.

In Part I, Sellars has oboist Albrecht Mayer stand next to tenor Topi Lehtipuu to perform “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” (“I would be with my Jesus watching”). He plays above the antiphonal choirs like a “solitary wakeful shepherd,” in Sellars’ description.

In Part II for the aria “Komm süßes Kreuz” (“Come blessed cross”) — the moment in the drama where Symon of Cyrene bears Jesus’ cross for him — Sellars positions bass Thomas Quasthoff in a seated position, on the large box-podium, directly behind Hille Perl, the solo viola da gamba player. Toward the end in what appears to be unbearable grief, he leans his head on her shoulders.

Here are the bass’ lines (in Robert Shaw’s singing translation): “Come, blessed Cross, I’ll not forswear it: My Jesus, give it here to me. And if the burden be too great, Then help Thou me to help Thee bear it.”

As so often with Bach, one of the most stunning musical moments occurs at precisely 0.618 of the piece (the so-called proportional “Golden Mean”), the suspended-in-time soprano aria “Aus Liebe” (“For love”). It is a reflection on the moment when Pilate asks the mob, “But what evil has he done?”

Sellars explains: “The answer arises in a woman’s voice borne across the waters with the sound of a flute. It is a list of miracles, giving sight to the blind, making the lame walk, raising the poor, welcoming and sheltering people who have lost all sense of self-worth — the miracles that are at some level the day-to-day unpaid work of most women on the planet.”

Is this a clue to why Sellars has the two female soloists perform barefoot? Nonetheless, for this heart-stopping moment, flutist Emmanuel Pahud stands and weaves his long melody behind a motionless soprano (Tilling), while the two oboe da caccia players accompany, further behind Pahud. It is a moment of heartbreaking stillness at the emotional and dramatic center of the piece.

Perhaps the most gripping of all is the staging of the famous aria “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy, Lord”), a tearful reflection on Peter’s guilt over denying Jesus, set musically as a pulsing 12-beat siciliano for alto and solo violin.  At this point, Sellars has mezzo Magdalena Kožená remain collapsed on the floor after the intensity of her previous aria that opened Part II, “Ach! Nun ist mein Jesus hin” (“Alas, now my Jesus is gone”).

Concertmaster Daniel Stabrawa slowly walks downstage and, half-seated next to her, begins to play. She gazes toward him slowly, her hands sometimes on his knees, and sings the entire aria to him and with him from a kneeling position. She seeks some inexpressible compassion in his amazing wordless music, and by extension, so do we. There are few singers who could accomplish this, both vocally and dramatically; Kožená is one. (One can imagine Hunt-Lieberson in this role.)

Equally impressive is Kožená’s singing of the aria “Können Tränen” — a reflection on the scourging of Jesus — where, singing of Jesus’ wounds, she hesitantly touches the Evangelist’s back (he, enacting Jesus’ receiving of the wounds, is face-down, pantomiming his hands bound behind his back). She seems to bloody her hands and yet tries to console: “Could [my heart] bear the precious flooding Of his wounds, so mildly bleeding, It would heaven’s chalice be.”

The conductor Simon Rattle was also integrated into the drama, though noticeable not so much for what he did as what he didn’t do. First, his hands-on, in-touch approach was to conduct the massive work baton-less (as the female soloists were shoe-less?). He was mainly stationed at his desk with Orchestra I, but from time to time would wander to Orchestra II (to conduct pieces only they played). As mentioned, he did not conduct any of the Evangelist’s secco recitatives — and even very few of the arias — but sat down with his arms crossed on the railing behind him watching the proceedings as an observer in the drama.

From a musical standpoint, this performance reflected Rattle and the Berliners’ recent successful embracing of historically informed performance. There were, however, a few interesting and strange choices, including:

1. The use of modern metal flutes in Orchestra I and Baroque wooden flutes in Orchestra II. Perhaps in the hall one could better discern their distinction, especially in the antiphonal dialogue of the opening number. Also, two small positive organs were used (the organ in Orchestra I joined by two lutes), rather than an organ pitted against a harpsichord.

2. Rattle chose, or perhaps took some odd advice, to employ a strangely pedantic use of rhythmic values for the appoggiaturas in the soprano-alto duet “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” (“Alas, my Jesus now is taken”). For each triple appearance of the eighth note grace-notes (in the strings, winds and two solo voices), Rattle imposed a strict descending pattern of sixteenth note — eighth note — quarter (followed by two eighths). Was this a musical allusion to Father, Son and Holy Ghost? It seemed to weaken the figure as it went along and drew more attention to itself than it heightened the musical drama.

3. The pair of “Crucify him!” crowd choruses that surround the aria “Aus Liebe” were performed with two very distinctly different characters. Since Bach gives no specific tempo or dynamic indications, Rattle made the first one soft and the second one loud, although they are almost always performed forte.

4. Probably the strangest choice was to go against all performance history of the piece and perform softly and sustained the mob chorus, “Sein Blut komme über uns” (“His blood be on us and on our children”). This biblical text, of course, has long been viewed (and used) as a justification for anti-Semitism. Was Rattle trying to evoke some sense of contemporary German guilt? Sellars had the chorus look at their hands in horror — Lady Macbeth-like — while they sang. Mostly, it was a musical misstep that slowed things down and made it sound as if Palestrina had dropped in for a moment.

5. Lastly, a blatant nod to the Romantic era that actually proved particularly beautiful: the final appearance of the “Passion” chorale tune, “Wenn ich einmal soll scheiden” (“When comes my hour of parting”) was performed softly by the voices alone — an old-fashioned “a cappella” choral rendition that, in its simplicity, was heart-stopping.

The Berlin Tagesspiegel reviewer described Rattle’s approach to the piece as “half inspired by the insights of musical rhetoric and half from an Espressivo-style not normally associated with him. That Rattle elicited such sparks from these opposite poles was the real event of this Passion.”

Peter Sellars also weighs in: “More recently, the brilliant instrumental and vocal insights of the Early Music movement have brought a freshness of articulation and deftness of touch that have both sharpened the astringencies and filled the [“Matthew” Passion] with new light and air. Perhaps some of the fast speeds of their performances reflect the Internet age and our easy consumerism. Organized religion is increasingly no longer part of most people’s lives and church services themselves have often become more lightweight and entertainment-oriented. In our world today, we have much to regret, to deplore and to repent of, but we have very few examples of sustained, collective self-reflection and mourning.

“Perhaps what we can do as artists is offer an approach to the piece that is for each of us individually, and for the shared moments of our short time here together, in a concert hall, and on the face of the earth, very personal.”

These thoughtful artists have done just that.

J.S. Bach: “The Passion According to St. Matthew.” Tenor Mark Padmore (Evangelist) and baritone Christian Gerhaher (Jesus) with soprano Camilla Tilling, mezzo Magdalena Kožená, tenor Topi Lehtipuu, baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Rundfunkchor Berlin (Simon Halsey, chorus master) and Boys from the Staats- und Domchors Berlin (Kai-Uwe Jirka, chorus master). Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle. Ritualization by Peter Sellars.

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