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Sellars Staging

Written by Uri Golomb [PhD Student, The Music Faculty, Cambridge University] (2001)

Bach: Cantatas nos. BWV 199 (Mein Herze schwimmt in Blut) and BWV 82 (Ich habe genug). Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson (mezzo), The Orchestra of Emmanuel Music/ Craig Smith; with Michael Schumacher (theatre performer, cantata BWV 82).
Stage Direction: Peter Sellars, with James F. Ingalls (lighting designer) and Dunya Ramicova (costume design for Cantata BWV 199).
London, Barbican Hall, March 30, 2001.

I must admit that I arrived at the hall with a suspicious mind, both at the idea of staging Bach cantatas and at the prospect of Peter Sellars doing it. I have seen Sellars’ notorious stagings of the Mozart/da-Ponte operas, and found them entirely unconvincing – not so much because of the modernisation, but because of the way they ignore both the text and music, giving the uneasy feeling that Sellars was forcing the operas to tell an entirely different story from the one they are actually trying to tell (a typical example being his transformation of Despina and Alfonso in Cosi fan tutte into seria characters engaged in a highly emotional romance – against all the evidence of text and music alike).

Then there was the fact that Bach’s cantatas were never intended for stage performance. I must add, though, that this did not disturb me that much, since these particular cantatas are not that far removed from operatic drama. Both of them are monologue cantatas, not just because they are written for one soloist, but because in both the soloist obviously portrays a character. In no. BWV 199, that character (the soul of the sinner, who usually appears in Bach’s cantatas in dialogue with Jesus, but here given an entire cantata for itself) undergoes a genuine development – starting off with a self-loathing reflection on the Original Sin and on her own sinful state, undergoing a process of prayer in which she alternately begs and demands God’s mercy; music and text alike portray her growing confidence, until – in the final aria – she is firmly and joyously convinced that she has obtained God’s forgiveness. In all this, the cantata’s dramatic and musical structure (an alternation of recitatives and arias) is not essentially different from that of secular monologue cantatas like Handel’s Lucretia.

Cantata BWV 82 is more dramatically static, portraying the development of a single state of mind: the speaker is weary of life on earth and wishes for the life to come in the next world. The mood is more unified, but there is still a process of transformation: the first aria is still sad and anguished, but this sadness is gradually relinquished in the large-scale “lullaby” of the second aria, and finally released in the joyous (if still somewhat painful) dance of the final aria.[1]

So, in a way, staging these works makes even more sense than staging the Bach Passions (something which has been done several times in the past). Bach’s cantatas are rightly viewed as sermons in music, but these sermons sometimes take the form of an allegorical narrative, and when that happens, the idea of staging them is not entirely incongruous. That said, the same argument could be made for staging a song cycle like Winterreise (again, something that has been done); and in both cases, my initial reaction would be that the interpretation can and should be conveyed primarily through musical means, not visual or theatrical ones. Lieder singers do indulge in some degree of acting in recitals; their facial expressions and physical gestures reflect their understanding of the text and the music. Arguably, this minimal degree of theatricality is quite sufficient – for Lieder and for Bach’s dramatic cantatas alike.

Having now seen the Sellars staging, I must admit that I still haven’t made up my mind. These performances were certainly more compelling and moving than I had dared to hope, but I did not find them ultimately as convincing as Deborah Warner’s recent staging of the St. John Passion. (See: The St. John Passion on stage)

Sellars took the trouble of explaining his vision of the cantatas, both in an interview in Stagebill (re-printed in the programme), and by giving short introductions to each of the cantatas. These introductions clearly revealed his attempt to universalise Bach’s message, replacing its specifically Christian nature with a more generally human confrontation with guilt (in Cantata BWV 199) and death (in Cantata BWV 82).

Sellars’ eagerness to remove Bach from his context and place him in a more unique position (simultaneously personal and universal) was particularly pronounced in his introduction to Cantata BWV 199. He quoted some of the more colourful and disturbing imagery from the text (“My heart swims in blood”, “My sins have made me a monster in the eyes of God”), stating that they were so much “beyond the pale” that Bach did not even dare to use the cantata in the framework of church service.

Historically, this is a mixture of exaggeration and error. Bach may not have written the work for public service (the precise circumstances of the first performance are not known), but he used it on three later occasions – including a quite standard church service in Leipzig.[2] The text, as in virtually all cantatas, was not Bach’s own; indeed, Bach was not even the first to set it to music (he was preceded by Johann Christoph Graupner). Its colourful imagery was by no means unique or unusual in Lutheran church poetry in general, or among Bach’s cantata libretti in particular. In fact, there are those who argue that the opposite is the case:

The essential Bach was an avatar of a pre-Enlightened – and when push came to shove, a violently anti-Enlightened – temper. His music was a medium of truth, not beauty. And the truth he served was bitter. His works persuade us – no, reveal to us – that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, that reason is a snare. (Richard Taruskin, “Facing up, finally, to Bach’s dark vision”)

While Taruskin’s statement is an exaggeration, it is does have a significant grain of truth in it. Sellars’ implication that this was a “cruel and unusual” text is typical of his ignoring (unwittingly or otherwise) the works’ original context. His elucidation of the chorale towards the end of the cantata is likewise disingenuous. The text speaks of “Thy deep wounds, where I have always found salvation”, and Sellars interprets this (if I understood him) as confronting one’s own pains and wounds. But of course, the text speaks of Christ’s wounds, and the Christian belief that Jesus’s self-sacrifice redeems humankind – or more precisely that portion of humankind that believes in Christ – from the original sin.

Likewise for the overall interpretation:

Bach starts at the maximum point of despair and extremity. She [the speaker] has polluted her being so deeply that she finds her life unbearable. It’s the breaking point, where something has to change. This cantata documents that process of personal transformation: how you empty yourself out and start over again.

This ignores the actual message of the cantata, which is not universally psychological but specifically Christian: it portrays the sinner putting his or her trust in God and His forgiveness, and in Christ’s triumph over the Original Sin.

Being neither a Christian nor a believer myself, I have no qualms in principle about Sellars’ attempt to extract a more universal message from Bach’s work – one which is related to the original message, and which the music can still deliver. But I was troubled by Sellar’ apparent dishonesty: like many performers and interpreters, he insisted of ascribing this message to Bach, instead of openly admitting that he has creatively re-fashioned Bach for his own uses. Taruskin colourfully likened this procedure to a ventriloquist who tries to sit himself on the doll’s lap: the performer is pretending the composer is speaking through him, while in reality it is the performer who creates an image of the composer (the doll) and speaks through it.

When it came to the details of the music, I found that Sellars was often quite sensitive and musical, both in his commentary and – even more so – in his choreography. Despite his talk of the character’s “suicidal” nature, there was little trace of vulgarity in the actual visual style – which consisted of Lorraine Hunt, in a simple dress (described by Sellars as “late Renaissance”, if I recall correctly) and with no accompanying props, acting out the cantata as she sang it. Her gestures were usually quite closely linked to both music and text. Her initial self-loathing and her attempt to hide herself from God were portrayed, obviously and effectively, by her frequently facing down early on in the cantata. Sellars has (rightly, in my view) identified moments where the music is more defiant, demanding mercy rather than begging for it, and again found obvious and effective ways to portray this in gesture.

In the second aria (“Tief gebückt”), most of the gestures were a direct portrayal of the text (“Bowed low and full of remorse/ I lie, dearest God, before Thee”); but in the da-Capo – which is musically identical to the first section – Hunt’s gestures seemed much more relaxed and confident, even approaching radiance. This probably reflects Sellars’ reading of the very last phrase of the “b” section as a surprising, unexpected light shining out of the mercifully opened skies – again, an interpretation that I find highly appropriate for the music (the text, “Habe doch Geduld mit mir”, suggests nothing of the kind). He therefore suggested that, after this miraculous vision, the character repeats her prayer with the confidence that it will be answered. The final aria was shaped as an equivocal, but mostly joyous, dance – again in keeping with the music.

In fact, my reservations with the performance had much more to do with the musical than with the visual side. Lorraine Hunt possesses a marvellously deep and expressive voice, but she arguably made too much use of it. Her singing was, right from the start, powerful and resonant, and she displayed a wide variety of dynamics and vocal timbres, very much in the operatic tradition. What was lacking from her performance was any genuine variety in phrasing and articulation: she nearly always employed long, legato phrases. This made her dynamics and colourings seem over-theatrical, even sentimental at times. From a singer who has worked with William Christie and Nicholas McGegan, I would have expected a better sense of style (and these conductors, among others, have shown how good Baroque style can enhance dramatic directness).

The over-reticent, wholly untheatrical playing of the Emmanuel Music Orchestra under Craig Smith didn’t really help matters. Oboist Peggy Pearson shaped her crucial obbligato part with great sensitivity, but the strings were kept to the back, avoiding any grand gestures. Sellars described the viola obbligato in the chorale-aria as “psychedelic”. I think he was wildly exaggerating, but I wish violist Betty Hauck had taken his word for it: maybe then her playing would not have been so dull and uninflected. The general lack of charisma from the orchestra made Hunt’s theatrical singing seem even more extravagant; perhaps she would have convinced me more if there wasn’t so much discrepancy between her style and that of her accompanists.

In cantata BWV 82, my impressions were somewhat reversed: I was more convinced by the musical performance, and less so by the staging. Sellars’ view of this cantata was again universalised, once more ignoring the specific context – and indeed the specific content:

The idea of death as something natural has been sidestepped by modern science. There’s a genuine crisis: while we can prolong people’s lives in all these fantastic ways, nobody knows what dying beautifully is. Certainly not in hospitals; Cantata 82 envisages death not as enemy, not as panic, not as farewell, and not as the end of something. The music is about the beginning of something.

In my view, the crisis is quite the reverse: religion tried – precisely through its talk of “death as a beginning” – to avoid the idea of death as something natural, by appealing to a super-natural solution. Science has caused a crisis mainly to those who concluded from it that genuine death – a complete and final end to existence – is an inevitable aspect of the natural order of things. Bach’s solution is only available to those who reject this conclusion, who still believe in an afterlife. It is curious that Sellars has never stated where he himself stands on this.

Sellars thinks of this cantata as the portrayal of the last hours of a person’s life, and places his staging squarely in a hospital context: his character is a dying person, dressed in a hospital gown and hooked up to life support; she bravely decides to disengage it, suffering the final pains of death in the hope of something better to come. But the text of the cantata is not quite like that: it portrays all earthly life – not just the final moments – as painful, and on the other hand comes from a context where suicide (or any speeding up of the dying process) was viewed as taboo. The speaker is not necessarily dying, and is not about to do anything to hasten death’s arrival. He is merely praying for death, and waiting for God to grant him that favour.[3]

People reporting Near-Death Experiences often speak of going towards a warm, welcoming white light; and Jesus has often been described in other texts as a source of light (though this particular text does not use this metaphor). Sellars did not mention either of these related images in his talk or in his article, but I assume they were in his mind when he staged this work: here, Lorraine Hunt was joined by a performer (Michael Schumacher), holding a spotlight which she was striving towards for much of the cantata, and which alternately yielded to or alluded her grasp. The image first seemed trite and artificial – especially as the spotlight was just as visible (as a large, metallic, rather ugly object) as the light it emitted. But I gradually learned to ignore it, and to accept it for what it (presumably) symbolised. Again, the actual gestures were less extreme and graphic than Sellars’ opening statement have led me to expect. Still, I found the gesture (in the first recitative) of disconnecting the life support disturbing and inappropriate, from just about any point of view.

Hunt performed the work in its original key – which means that she sang it in the alto (rather than soprano) register, and was accompanied by the original oboe obbligato (rather than flute which Bach used in the soprano version). Perhaps because of the resulting lower tessitura, I found her vocal richness more appropriate here than in the previous cantata. I am not sure she actually employed a greater variety of phrasing and articulation here, but somehow her broad phrasing bothered me less – perhaps I got used to it, or perhaps it was better suited for the broader, more peaceful music of this cantata.

In any case, I found her singing of the second aria (“Schlummert ein”) especially moving: while part of my mind was not entirely convinced that her consistently intense-yet-hushed tone was entirely appropriate, another part found it absolutely captivating and expressive. Given the absence of strong dramatic gestures in the music, I was also less bothered by the (still over-reticent) accompaniment.

Ultimately, I feel that I have not “taken in” enough of the staging to be able to give a firm opinion of it. Many crucial details have slipped my memory (I don’t even remember whether the character definitely “dies” at the end of Cantata BWV 82, or whether this was left ambiguous). My general impression was that the local gestures were almost always closely attuned to the music – occasionally even fussy in their close mimicry of rhythmic and melodic minutiae – and that certain aspects of the staging were highly moving and convincing. In Cantata BWV 199, I felt that Sellars has created a vision that is, perhaps, more palatable for me than the message that Bach himself was trying to convey. In Cantata BWV 82, I felt that Sellars came perhaps a bit closer to Bach’s own belief (in the existence of the afterlife as a reason for gracefully accepting the end of this life), something which increased my distance from both of them.[4]

In the final analysis, I am still in two minds (or more) about staging Bach’s cantatas in general, and about Sellars’ way of doing it in particular. That said, his direction was musical and thought provoking, and I would be curious to see it again – perhaps on video – and try to get a more considered view of it.

© Uri Golomb, 2001



[1] The music here goes in the opposite direction from the text. The words of the first aria don’t mention pain and suffering at all, and it is only later that specific references to the suffering of life on earth appear.

[2] To find this out, all Sellars had to do was read a reasonable CD programme note – or indeed the programme notes to this very concert.

[3] The Gospel of the Day tells of the ageing priest of Simeon, who has just held the baby Jesus in his arms, recognising him as the saviour, and is now serenely and hopefully anticipating the contended end of his life. Neither the pains of death nor any plan to do anything to speed its arrival are relevant here. Neither Simeon nor the speaker in the cantata are necessarily facing a fatal illness; the disease and pain they want to get rid of are earthly life itself. It is only by ignoring this crucial aspect that Sellars can portray Bach’s message here as a healthy one for modern times. Again, the music is deeply-felt and life enhancing, and I have no qualms in principle with Sellars’ attempt to twist it into a new use, more appropriate for modern listeners (though I am not sure that I find his message any healthier than Bach’s). What bothers me, once more, is his refusal to acknowledge that this message is his own, not Bach’s.

[4] I am afraid that in both cantatas, his verbal explanations were crucial for creating the effect. I felt, as I watched, that I understood what most of the choreography meant to convey; but I probably wouldn’t have felt so had I not been told in advance something about the director’s view.


Cantata BWV 82: Details
1900-1949 | 1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | 2010-2019 | Recitative & Aria for Soprano from Anna Magdalena Notenbüchlein | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | BWV 508-523 Anna Magdalena Notenbüchlein - General Discussions
Text, music and performative interpretation in Bach’s cantata Ich habe genug [U. Golomb] | Sellars Staging [U. Golomb] | The Need for Bach: A discussion of his life, Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen, BWV 51 and Ich habe genung, BWV 82 [S. Burton]

Cantata BWV 199: Details
Complete Recordings:
1900-1949 | 1950-1959 | 1960-1969 | 1970-1979 | 1980-1989 | 1990-1999 | 2000-2009 | 2010-2019 | Recordings of Individual Movements
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Article: Sellars Staging [U. Golomb]

Craig Smith: Short Biography | Emmanuel Music | Recordings of Vocal Works | General Discussions | Craig Smith & Emmanuel Music w/ Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson (Mezzo-soprano) - Cantatas BWV 82 & BWV 199

Lorraine Hunt: Short Biography | Craig Smith & Emmanuel Music w/ Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson (Mezzo-soprano) - Cantatas BWV 82 & BWV 199 | Article: Sellars Staging [Uri Golomb]

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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