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S & H Opera Review

Bach, 'St. John Passion' English National Opera, March 15th (ME)


This production is typical of the styles of both the ENO and the director, Deborah Warner, in that it concentrates on the interactions between characters as presented in the music, and that it arouses strong emotions on opposing sides. There are many who either will not attend such a piece out of principle, and they are probably the same people who booed with outrage at some of the images in her Glyndebourne 'Don Giovanni;' there are likewise many who will be deeply moved by it, and these are likely to be the same people who were fascinated by her management of the individual characters in that production. I am one of those who were thrilled by the 'Don Giovanni' so it's not surprising that I was deeply moved by this 'St. John Passion.'

One basic element is surely that, however you present it, this great work will never fail to move, and will survive whatever is done to it; is it possible for anyone with a grain of human feeling to remain dry-eyed at such moments as 'Weib, siehe, das ist dein Sohn! / Siehe, das ist deine Mutter!'? I don't think so, and that has to be part of the production's success; you just can't go wrong with it, so the mere fact that it's being staged like this is in itself a positive thing. Warner does not put a foot wrong, and neither does anyone on stage, the only awkwardness arising from the laudable notion of encouraging the audience to join in with some of the chorales; if this is going to happen, then the management needs to arrange for everyone to have a song sheet, since distributing them to selected individuals is not going to do the trick, the ability to sing or simply just to 'join in' something not being externally evident! I do not know the words in English, so sat mutely during 'Wer hat dich so geschlagen' until I realised that so few others were uttering a cheep that I might as well just sing the next two in German anyway, so I droned away during 'Christus, der uns selig macht' and 'Ach Herr, lass dein lieb' Engelein' and observed that I was not the only one doing so.

The chorales were sung most movingly by a Community Chorus, stationed in the stage boxes, and the auditorium was lit throughout, making for a real sense of corporate effort. The stage setting was starkly simple, mainly based upon pinpoints of light from hundreds of suspended bulbs at the beginning and end, and a long table / bench which served a s a multiple prop. There was evocative use of film images as a backdrop, especially the close-up of a bleeding face, and the cross was massively present in the guise of an immense wooden pole. Beyond that, bunches of flowers provided splashes of colour during the last scene, and then there was the Lamb - but more of that later. Costumes were muted, everyday - wear in style, and the whole gave the feeling of the kind of enterprise which must once have been so common when the Miracle Plays were first performed.

The singing was of the very highest quality from start to finish, and the management of the arias as integrated parts of the drama was brilliantly achieved. Mark Padmore is not a tenor to whom I have ever warmed as the Evangelist in 'normal' performances of the Passions; his voice is too white for my liking, and to me he does not make enough of the searingly emotional and dramatic moments in the St. John, such as the scourging, but here he did impress with his clarity of diction, his absolutely beautiful singing and his natural, unaffected acting. If ever a singer was well chosen for a role in a production, then this tenor was for this one; this Evangelist is not a dispassionate narrator but a deeply emotional disciple, and Padmore lives it to perfection. His sensitive, mobile face always makes him look as though he is just about to burst into tears - when he sings 'Comfort Ye,' I always think he really means 'Comfort Me,' and so it was here.

Jesus (Paul Whelan) and Pilate (David Kempster) were no less impressively taken; these were performances of real stature, with many searing moments such as that wonderful confrontation beginning 'Bist du der Jüden König? Their absolute commitment was a joy to see, and Whelan's 'Siehe, das ist deine Mutter!' will stay with me for a long time: directed with moving simplicity and wonderful sense of dignity, such moments are what make music theatre live.

The solo singers were no less impressive, Gillian Keith's soprano being especially noteworthy. This lovely young singer was making her ENO debut; she won the 2000 Kathleen Ferrier award, and this will have surprised no one, for her voice is genuinely beautiful and used with grace and fluency, and she made perfect sense of her youthful, impetuous 'character' within the overall concept. Catherine Wyn - Rogers never ceases to delight me; with every performance, her diction is the clearest on stage, her musicality gives the most absolute pleasure, and her singing is a model of perfect style and moving communicativeness; 'Es ist Vollbracht' was as finely sung as I have ever heard it. She acknowledges the fact that she continues to study with Diane Forlano, and it shows. Barry Banks sang sweetly and accurately in his taxing arias, and the very young James Rutherford made an impressive debut in the bass solos; his voice is very beautiful indeed, and he brought Quasthoff to mind in his singing of 'Mein teurer Heiland,' especially in the moving quality of his intonation.

Stephen Layton, well known to London audiences for his always sold - out performances with Polyphony, directed the chamber orchestra with flair and vigour, tenderly shaping the accompaniments to the arias and whipping the players into real fervour in the more dramatic moments.

And that much - disputed ending? I can understand the objections, but on this occasion it worked perfectly, with not a snigger in the house, and not many dry eyes, either; as stage and audience are united in that final, heartbreaking chorale, a lamb is placed in the arms of the Evangelist, who then seems to offer it to us. Never work with animals or children, they say, but whoever coached Padmore in how to stand clutching a lamb, front centre stage, his eyes absolutely brimming over, certainly knew what they were doing. With the assembled company brightly lit by all those tiny bulbs, the stage strewn with spring flowers, it forms a stage picture that is as powerful and moving as anything to be seen today. Wonderful: go, but tuck a hanky in your pocket, and make sure you pick up a song sheet.

Melanie Eskenazi

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