Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Summer Passion

July 02, 2007

Henry Waddington and Ingela Bohlin
Photo: Mike Hoban/Glyndeborne 2007
While apparently thousands of people packed in to the Princess Diana memorial tribute concert to hear the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, and Lily Allen yesterday, I opted to take Sunday in the country instead. Specifically, I attended the premiere of the Glyndebourne Festival’s new staged production of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion. A perennial tactic, staging Bach’s large sacred choral work is the only recompense for a world of opera lovers who just can’t let go of the fact that one of Western Civilizations greatest composers never, in fact, got around to actually writing an opera. This oratorio comes close, however, and, when staged in as wildly outlandish a fashion as it was by Katie Mitchell in her debut at Glyndebourne yesterday, it suddenly seems very natural, appropriate, and highly relevant.

More directly, I loved this show. It’s great and, while certainly not to everyone’s taste, it has many, many joys. Most notably, the performances of the central cast are nothing short of stunning. Sarah Connolly and Ingela Bohlin were the alto and soprano soloists respectively and were equally captivating. Henry Waddington sang the Christ part and was quite good as well. Perhaps the most amazing performance though belonged to Mark Padmore who took the rather functional and didactic part of the Evangelist and filled it with so much beauty and spirit that it became the centerpiece of the whole afternoon. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Richard Egarr provided sublime accompaniment, filling the festival hall with the profound welling of emotion and spirit Bach surely intended.

Mark Padmore as the Evangelist
Photo: Mike Hoban/Glyndeborne 2007
However, the most interesting thing about all of this was the context in which it took place. The production is described like this from the program notes, “A community gathers in a school. The community is mourning for its children; they should be here, in this school. But they are dead. This is happening now; somewhere in Europe. …outsiders come to visit the school. They are traveling players who come to perform the story of Jesus’s death to the community, as told in the Gospel of St. Matthew. …The spectators watch, listen and take part, experiencing the story through their own grief.” The outsiders include the four primary soloists mentioned above while community members, who are recruited over the course of the performance from the “audience,” play the smaller roles. This is a broad and ambitious conceit to be sure but one that strangely works and is quite affecting.

The “performance” conducted by the “visiting players” is highly symbolic and filled with so much metaphorical and religious imagery that it becomes a torrent at times. Sand is poured, heads are submerged in water, soloists dress as brides and pregnant women, bowls are set aflame, a table is laid with a large swath of grass, and a child appears as an angel. And yet, all of it works. This play within a play structure allows for a second level of commentary on the Passion story’s relevance to our own world. It also avoids what now seem like dated Godspell-inspired theatrics of something like Jonathan Miller’s well-traveled staged version of this work. But again this is the power of Bach's work - a seemingly endless ability to remain relevant over centuries. In any event, Glyndebourne has a great production on their hands with a stellar cast the likes of which you may not see again soon. Now's a good time for a trip to the country.

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