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Opera and the Drama per Musica The St. John Passion on stage

Written by Uri Golomb [PhD in Musicology at Cambridge University, UK] (April 2000)

BACH: ST. JOHN’S PASSION

Text from the Gospel according to St. John’s (with additions from St. Matthew’s), The Passion-oratorio by Brockes (edited and modified by Bach), and Lutheran chorales. English version by Neil Jenkins.

Evangelist: Mark Padmore; Jesus: Paul Whelan; Pilatus: David Kempster
Arias: Natalie Christie (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (alto); Barry Banks (tenor); Michael George (bass)
Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera
Conductor: Stephen Layton
Director: Deborah Warner
London Coliseum, April 12 2000

 

Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Layout
3. The Musical Interpretation
4. The Staging
Notes

 

1. INTRODUCTION

At first, I was suspicious of the idea of a staged production of the St. John’s Passion. This is, quite evidently, not a stage work. While it does tell a story (the trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus), much of the text is devoted to reflections on this story (the four aria singers do not represent characters at all),[1] and the action is conveyed mostly by a narrator (the evangelist) – a distinctly non-theatrical device. The chorus switches roles constantly, representing soldiers, the Jewish leadership and the entire Jewish populace in alternation, and in between singing choruses (reflecting on the action, like the aria singers) and Lutheran chorales. The latter represent Bach’s congregation, who would have been familiar with them from the regular church services – including the Good Friday Service, of which the Passion formed part[2]

On the other hand, there are theatrical precedents for much of this. For instance, the Chorus in Greek drama veers between taking part of the plot as actual characters (for instance, the state elders in Sophocles’s Edipus and Antigone), and reflecting upon it. So a staged production of a work like the Johannes-Passion, while not an obvious idea, is not inherently absurd. The real question is whether a particular staging succeeds in overcoming the difficulties: Is the experiment worthwhile? Does it tell us anything about Bach’s approach to the various texts he combined here?

In my view, this production fully justifies the experiment. The drama enacted here was not so much the story as told by the Evangelist (though that too was presented, sometimes quite realistically), but that of the Christian believer’s identification with that story. The lines between story and reaction were therefore sometimes blurred, mostly to quite convincing and moving effect.

 

2. THE LAYOUT

Not surprisingly, given the need for flexibility (necessitated by the constant move from the realm of the story to that of reflection and back), the stage was quite unadorned. Except for a few props of stagecraft (such as large wooden poles lowered to represent the three crosses at Golgatha) and clothing (Jesus’ robe and crown of thorns), there wasn’t much by way of scenery or costumes. Pilatus was dressed as a modern-day government official would be (a respectable three-piece suit); all other characters were dressed quite casually, thus allowing them to switch identities without stretching credibility too far. The true identity of the chorus, if it had one, was that of the Christian believers. Bach’s approach to the Passion stresses that all sinners are to blame for Christ’s death, for it was for them that he died; it therefore made sense for them to act out the role of those who are more directly blamed for his death (the Jewish populace and the Roman soldiers).

Much of the action was portrayed realistically, though there are also evidently symbolic moments. The aria singers sometimes stand apart from the action – either singing to a stage which has been completely emptied of all dramatic characters, or observing a scene which has been “frozen” for the duration of their aria. At other times, however, they interact directly with the characters of the drama. The Evangelist is presented sometimes as a simple narrator, telling the story to the chorus (in their role as believers) or to the audience in the hall. At other times, however, his interaction with Petrus and with Jesus suggests that he is portraying the character of St. John the Apostle, one of Jesus’ disciples and the supposed author of the text.

Another complement to the staging was the projection of images at the back of the stage; I cannot comment on those since where I was sitting (in the balcony), I could hardly make out what those images were.

 

3. THE MUSICAL INTERPRETATION

The performance was conducted by Stephen Layton, a conductor who had struck me on previous hearings as rather dull and pedantic. On this occasion, however, he excelled himself – possibly inspired by the operatic context. His tempi were conventional but well-chosen, and the performance usually flowed unhurriedly and effectively (though I would have liked a bit more tension here and there). The one weak spot was the choir. For this performance, two choral groups were enlisted: “individuals from amateur choirs” sang the chorales from boxes adjacent to the stage, while the English National Opera Chorus sang the “turba” (crowd) choruses and the polyphonic choirs. Ironically, the amateur choirs (who admittedly had a less tasking vocal part) were much better than their professional counterparts. While the chorales were sung with vocal beauty and clarity, the ENO’s chorus sang with too much vibrato, clouding Bach’s intricately polyphonic textures and thus dulling their musical and dramatic effect. They were also less than impressive in the bass-and-chorus arias: Both of these were sung with the chorus off-stage, and they simply couldn’t get their timing right. (I think these should have been given to the on-stage “amateur” singers). The orchestra, on the other hand, was quite good, displaying a mostly transparent and clean sound, and some fine obbligato playing – especially from the oboists and from the viola da gamba.

The soloists were uniformly excellent. The tenor Barry Banks displayed a rather thin voice, but he was convincingly musical in his phrasing and dynamics. The other soloists were very impressive both vocally and musically – particularly the tenor Mark Padmore (one of the most lyrical and moving evangelists it has been my pleasure to hear) and alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Their interpretations will be described in greater detail in the following section.

 

4. THE STAGING

The actual action was portrayed, for the most part, quite realistically in this production – sometimes too realistically for my comfort. By this, I refer especially to the most blatantly anti-Jewish moments, which appear quite frequently in this narrative. For instance, Pilatus’s desire to release Jesus, and his frustration at his failure to mollify the Jews, were quite convincingly portrayed. So were the crowd scenes: the mob is seen pressing and threatening Petrus (before his denial of Christ) and Pilatus (before he finally consents to pronounce Jesus’s death-sentence). One cannot really criticise the director for this portrayal of the Jews as a lynch mob; indeed one might even praise her for not whitewashing this particular aspect. Personally, however, I found it quite disturbing.

Some moments in the plot were portrayed more symbolically, less as real events. This usually related to the arias. Jesus’ flagellation, for instance, leads to a moment where he stands with his exposed back to the audience, the entire chorus surrounding him and looking at him; this image then remains as the backdrop for the tenor’s aria “behold him”.

Jesus himself is portrayed as almost impervious to his own suffering – other characters (such as the evangelist) betray more pain and vulnerability than he does. He displayed, for the most pa, confidence and impassiveness – appearing in control even as he’s being led and tortured (only once did he sing in a more anguished manner, and this at what seemed to me an inappropriate moment – where he tells Pilatus that “he that delivered Me unto thee hath the greater sin”). This general approach is, again, quite fitting to the text and its musical setting. The Jesus of St John’s accepts his fate boldly, and his last words are “It is fulfilled” (unlike his St Matthew counterpart, who prays to his father to relieve him of the burden, and whose last words are “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”). Bach’s music follows this lead – his setting of Christ’s words in St Matthew is more impassioned than in St John, where the references to Christ’s suffering are mainly confined to the reflective arias.

It is these arias that present the real challenge for a staging of the Passion. Here, I feel that the director, Deborah Warner, displayed a keen (and, in these days, rare) sensitivity to the music. This was evident right from the first aria. The text, “From the bondage of my transgressions,/ that ever binds me,/ my Redeemer sets me free”, presents an overall positive message couched in painful imagery. Bach’s tortured setting, however, focuses on this imagery and its expressive implications, and the staging follows suit: the alto enters the empty stage in evidently mournful gestures, bowed down by her “transgression” and by grief over “the wounds He bears for me”.

After barely a few seconds (as the Evangelist tells us of the two disciples who followed Jesus to his trial), the soprano rushes in with her aria “I follow Thee gladly”. The alto, however, remains on stage and stares in disbelief as the soprano sings and acts her text with appropriate energy and eagerness.

A tension is thus created between the Christian believer’s two responses to the Gospel narrative: compassion for Jesus’s suffering, grief at his death and guilt at their own complicity therein – and gladness at the redemption offered by Christ’s willing self-sacrifice.

This tension reaches its height in the alto’s aria “It is fulfilled”. Jesus, having spoken these words, departs from his cross. The alto starts moving slowly towards the cross, eventually touching it hesitantly, as if in disbelief and distress. At the beginning of the fast section (“The Lion of Judah fought the fight/ And hath prevailed”), she turns to the audience with sudden resolve and conviction, and she retains this defiant mood even when the opening phrase returns (defying also the usual tradition of performance for this aria). However, this resolution deserts her when the instrumental opening returns, and her final utterance of that same opening phrase returns to the more resigned, grief-laden mood of the opening. It takes an act of will to believe that Jesus’s death is in fact triumphant; and this will cannot be maintained indefinitely.

It is certainly difficult for the Evangelist in this staging to maintain it. He undergoes a gradual transformation, from a mere narrator addressing the audience to an active participant in the drama (as I noted earlier, there are hints that he is indeed St. John the Apostle, and/or the disciple who takes care of Jesus’s mother after his death – at Jesus’s behest), and as his involvement in the story increases, so does his vulnerability.

Towards the end of the first part, when the Evangelist describes Petrus’s tears of remorse at his denial of Christ, he comfortingly embraces Petrus. Later, however, as he follows Jesus unto his death, he becomes increasingly pained (as is evident, for instance, when he hurriedly and angrily disperses the soldiers who were casting lots on Jesus’s robe, and rescues it from them). Finally, after describing Jesus’s death and the subsequent storm, he almost collapses, kneeling down and holding the robe to his face; and now it is the soprano (singing her aria “O heart, melt in weeping”) who holds and comforts him. As he narrates the final portions of the story, his distress is still evident – he barely makes it through these last portions before kneeling down again as the choir (bringing in flowers to Jesus’s tomb) sings the penultimate chorus.

At the very end, he rises again, and receives into his hands a lamb – a symbol of the transfigured Christ; his acceptance of it signifies, I suppose, the Christian believer’s final acceptance of the worthiness and effectiveness of Christ’s sacrifice. I can understand this symbolism and even concede its appropriateness; but what he receives is a real, living lamb, who bleats its way through the final chorale and into the subsequent applause. Some members of the audience couldn’t suppress their laughter at this, and one can hardly blame them.

This was a real pity, as it struck a ridiculous concluding note for what was otherwise a very effective, sensitive staging which truly brought to life Bach’s reaction to the Passion story and its complex significance even for Christian believers, let alone other types of Bach-loving audiences. As a Jew and a non-believer, I found that this staging enlivened the complex web of theological and philosophical ideas involved in Bach’s interpretation of the Passion, and highlighted the emotional immediacy these issues had for him. It strengthened my impression of Bach as a devout Christian who was profoundly aware of the believer’s contradictory impulses in contemplating the Passion story, and who boldly sought to expose and confront them. I still think that the standard concert performance is normally the most effective way to present this music to a present-day audience, but Warner’s staging presented a compelling, convincing and moving alternative, truly enhancing my understanding and appreciation of this problematic masterpiece.

 

© Uri Golomb, 2000

 

Notes

[1] From Bach’s point of view, this is not entirely accurate: he intended the same tenor to sing both arias and Evangelist, and the same bass to sing both Jesus and arias. This is rarely done today, however.

[2] It has been suggested that they might have joined in during this service, but this was almost certainly not the case (the congregation did sing chorales, but in other parts of the service – not simultaneously with the harmonised settings embedded in the Passions and Cantatas).
On this occasion, the audience was handed the melodies of three chorales, including the last one, and was invited to join in for these.

 

Copyright © This article was written by Uri Golomb [PhD in Musicology at Cambridge University, UK] (April 2000). You may freely distribute this work provided that it is unaltered and that no charge is made and this copyright notice is retained.
Contributed by
Uri Golomb (April 27, 2005)

Johannes-Passion BWV 245: Details
Recordings:
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001 | Sung in English | Individual Movements
General Discussions:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Systematic Discussions:
Part 1: Mvts. 1-7 | Part 2: Mvts. 6-14 | Part 3: Mvts. 15-20 | Part 4: Mvts. 21-26 | Part 5: Mvts. 27-32 | Part 6: Mvts. 36-40 | Part 7: Summary
Individual Recordings:
BWV 245 - F. Brüggen | BWV 245 - S. Cleobury | BWV 245 - P. Dombrecht | BWV 245 - D, Fasolis | BWV 245 - J.E. Gardiner | BWV 245 - E.z. Guttenberg | BWV 245 - N. Harnoncourt-H. Gillesberger | BWV 245 - P. Herreweghe | BWV 245 - E. Higginbottom | BWV 245 - E. Jochum | BWV 245 - E. Kleiber | BWV 245 - P.J. Leusink | BWV 245 - H. Max | BWV 245 - P. McCreesh | BWV 245 - H. Münch | BWV 245 - P. Neumann | BWV 245 - A. Parrott | BWV 245 - P. Pickett | BWV 245 - K. Richter | BWV 245 - H. Rilling | BWV 245 - P. Schreier | BWV 245 - R. Shaw | BWV 245 - K. Slowik | BWV 245 - M. Suzuki | BWV 245 - J.v. Veldhoven
Articles:
Saint John Passion, BWV 245 [T.N. Towe] | The Passion of Saint John, BWV 245 [M. Steinberg] | St. John Passion [A. Wong & N. Proctor] | The St. John Passion on stage [U. Golomb] | Literary Origins of Bach’s St. John Passion: 1704-1717 [W. Hoffman] | Bach’s Passion Pursuit [W. Hoffman]

Uri Golomb: Short Biography | Articles: Text, music and performative interpretation in Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug | Two Easter St. Matthew Passions (Plus One) | Sellars Staging | The St. John Passion on stage | András Schiff/Philharmonia Orchestra: Johann Sebastian Bach, 2000 | Hierarchies and continuities in televised productions of Bach’s Passions

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