St Matthew Passion at the National Theatre

St Matthew Passion

Evangelist – Andrew Staples
Jesus – Hadleigh Adams

Ruby Hughes (soprano); Sally Bruce-Payne (mezzo-soprano); James Laing (countertenor); Benjamin Hulett (tenor) & Mark Stone (bass)

Chorus from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

Southbank Sinfonia
Paul Goodwin

Jonathan Miller – Director
Oliver Fenwick – Lighting designer
Emma Pile – Design realisation

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 19 September, 2011
Venue: The Olivier, National Theatre, London

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) in a 1748 portrait by HaussmannThis acted-out St Matthew Passion first appeared nearly twenty years ago, in 1993, in that temple to the Arts and Crafts Movement, Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Street. It made quite an impact – that this Everest of Western culture and religion could be so movingly delivered by young performers, who made it so fresh and, for want of a better word, accessible. Since then, there have been stagings of St Matthew at Glyndebourne, and the St John Passion, Handel’s Messiah and Verdi’s Requiem at ENO, all of them with much grander design and production values than the harsh lighting, plain chairs and simple central platform of Jonathan Miller’s St Matthew, and all of them in various ways hobbled by loopy or just plain tacky concepts – very much a case of the way to hell being paved with good intentions.

The St Matthew Passion, much more than the St John, is full of dramatic opportunities, in particular Christ’s Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and his extraordinarily potent dialogue with Pontius Pilate, the latter the nearest Bach got to writing something that could be described as operatic. The trouble is, however, that the Evangelist is given so much descriptive narrative to sing, which renders an acting-out of it unnecessary. The result is a great deal of reactive, simplistic emoting – you could hardly describe it as acting – from the chorus in fixed glum mode, wearing their everyday clothes, which doesn’t add to our appreciation or understanding of the work. Everyone sings from memory, which gives it a much greater visual immediacy – although there have been plenty of conventional concert performances with everyone behind a music stand and wearing black that have achieved this, and, in an even remoter medium, it bursts out of John Eliot Gardiner’s recording.

Miller also sets great store by having the obbligato instruments Bach deploys in some of the arias playing (from memory) next to the singer, a bit like the daemons to the characters in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It was very touching in ’Erbarme dich’, sung and played directly to Peter after he has denied Christ and the cock has crowed, but the tenderness and forgiveness written into the music doesn’t require additional wither-wringing. On the plus side, the Pilate episode emphasised Jesus becoming increasingly detached from the world, and the moment, after the trial, when Jesus left the stage through the stalls to sing ‘My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me’ from the back of the auditorium was devastating. But in general, apart from sentimental exploitation, there just isn’t enough theatre for Miller to play with.

Also, the direction of the Evangelist is puzzling; he seemed neither sacred nor secular, his body-language implying an objective detachment that is not in the music. Also, I had doubts whether the Miller approach, for all its democratic accessibility, would work with performers who were middle-aged or elderly, and in this respect, one middle-aged singer, the excellent Mark Stone, was rather conspicuous. For the most part the other soloists were very good, especially the haunting countertenor of James Laing. Andrew Staples sang superbly as the Evangelist, his high tenor immensely flexible and dramatic. Hadleigh Adams’s rather raw baritone suited the way Miller wanted Jesus played – definitely not gentle Jesus, meek and mild – and his focus and stillness suited the way Bach wrote the part.

The double orchestra placed either side of the central platform didn’t help sight-lines but the players produced a wiry, urgent sound, with Paul Goodwin’s conducting pressing the music forward. Having the chorus on the other two sides of the platform wasn’t always great for ensemble, but the quality of the singing in the great chorales and choruses had terrific presence that went a long way to dispersing misgivings that Bach was being patronised and we were not being illuminated.

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