by Paul Hansen 16 March, 2022
Photo Credit - Kiran West
Before the advent of celluloid and such Hollywood epics as The Ten Commandments, The Robe, and The Greatest Story Ever Told, there were other means of retelling Biblical stories. Among these methods, of course, was the use of music and song. The St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach is commonly considered one of the greatest examples of Western sacred music and is currently being memorably performed by The Los Angeles Opera.
As its name implies, the oratorio is taken from the Gospel of Matthew. The Passion recounts the last days of Christ and it is, of course, particularly appropriate that the work be performed in the weeks prior to Easter. (The Passion’s first verified performance was on Good Friday in 1727.)
In addition to soloists, large chorus and orchestra forces, there is an additional visual aspect to the LA Opera production. Forty-two members of the Hamburg Ballet energetically present a dance interpretation throughout the oratorio. (The symphony and vocal soloists perform from the orchestra pit and the chorus appears behind a transparent black scrim towards the back of the stage). The dancers are all clothed in white, accentuating the ethereal aspect of the story and score.
The production is directed, choreographed and designed by John Neumeier who is also the artistic director and chief choreographer of the Hamburg Ballet. Neumeier's leadership of that organization has been extensive, having assumed that position in 1973. The production has received international acclaim since it premiered in 1981 in Hamburg.
The stellar soloists in the cast include Tamara Wilson, Susan Graham, Ben Bliss and Kristinn Sigmundsson. Joshua Blue sings the high tenor role of the Evangelist through whom much of the narrative is told, and baritone Michael Sumuel performs the role of Jesus. The soloists’ interpretations are all authoritative. The elegant baroque texture of the instrumental score is ably brought forth by the LA Opera Orchestra under the leadership of James Conlon. With a running length of almost four hours (Bach’s longest composition) this production will probably particularly appeal to enthusiasts of the composer. As might be expected of a piece that describes the death and crucifixion of Christ, the music often has a somber, meditative air.
The world seems to have, without pause, segued between two crises. The effects of both could be seen at the premiere performance of the Passion which I attended at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Masks are still being worn in the auditorium, and before the performance began, the LA Opera Chorus and Orchestra performed a rousing rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem. The brutality described in some of the text of the Passion had an extra resonance in the face of the horrific violence that can currently be witnessed 24 hours a day on any news outlet. One can only hope that peace and justice will emerge very soon.
The St. Matthew Passion is performing through March 27 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.