Bach’s St. Matthew Passion at BAM

He does not seem to have had any interest in the operatic form and,
too, he never lived in a major court city (such as Dresden or Berlin), where an
opera company would have been part of any composer’s focus — much
less an urban center with its own opera tradition, such as Hamburg, Venice or
London. Why, then, would we want to have one of his grander compositions
— in this case, the St. Matthew Passion — enacted on
stage, with the singers playing parts, when Bach seems to have intended the
music and the message to reach our ears without benefit of stage pictures at

Handel’s oratorios are sometimes based on stage plays (Esther,
Athalia, Hercules
), and the laws against staging Bible stories in England
were only withdrawn in the twentieth century — the arguments for
presenting them fully staged are clear and often convincing, as are staged
productions. Besides, Handel had plenty of stage experience and knew how to run
the machine as well as anybody. Bach never got that experience.

What has been achieved in Jonathan Miller’s long-celebrated staging of
St. Matthew, recently presented at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is
an emphasis on the story to vie with the music, an urgency to the unfolding
drama, an intensification of the (perhaps obscure) message of the crucifixion.
The singers are acting, and they are catching our eyes, and they are putting a
force behind the meaning of the music that is rare in even the most intense
concert or church performance — they are underlining the theatricality of
ritual, the ritual nature of theater — they are pulling us into an event
of two thousand years ago with the intent of obliging us to think about it,
take it seriously, of not permitting us to pass it off, whether we agree with
Bach’s (and St. Matthew’s) interpretation or not. Further
to bring it home to an Anglophone audience, the work is sung not in
Bach’s German but in Robert Shaw’s singable English translation.

Since the singers are in street clothes of our era (who ever thought of
Jesus as a rather pudgy fellow in a red sweatshirt? — the dignified
Curtis Streetman), the result is to make the story very “lived,”
very immediate, to highlight the emotions of which Bach’s melodies sing.
My date, a Christian lady of a certain age, said it added to her appreciation
of the story that so many of the chorales were hymns she is used to singing in
church. I associate them with concerts of Bach — but perhaps this ties us
to something like the feelings of the audience for the original classical
tragedies, when the Aeschylean chorus interrupts the action to sing of some
relevant myth or other. We were getting an active story, portrayed by
modern-dress “actors,” while the chorus gave us their asides as
well as their active participation in the drama’s many small roles. But
this theatricality was intentionally undercut, not only by costume but by
positioning — the players, orchestra and singers, sat in the center of
the stage, and audience members were seated around them, indistinguishable
— except they were the ones with programs. We were asked to see this as a
tale of the people, of ourselves, being told among ourselves, by performers who
were also ourselves. Theater and ritual alike were deemphasized.

We could imagine that we were in Jerusalem that holy week, seeing these
things as they happened — as Bach perhaps wished us to imagine ourselves.
This called for singers (chorus as well as soloists) capable of acting out the
story as well as singing it, and the self-deception allowing us to imagine we
could sing as well as Rufus M¸ller (the Evangelist), Suzie LeBlanc and Daniel
Taylor. I mention LeBlanc and Taylor particularly, because I am familiar with
their work in various early music venues, and because both of them were
exceptionally fine in their arias in St. Matthew: clear, focused
voices so clear and full of belief as to give the illusion they were singing at
no more than conversational volume.

For believers, I imagine, this approach would pack a thrilling punch. For
those of any faith who believe in Bach and in the expressive possibilities of
the voice, it was a joy to be part of so powerful a performance.

John Yohalem

image_description=J. S. Bach by Elias Gottlob Haussmann (1748)
product_title=J.S. Bach: St. Matthew Passion
product_by=Evangelist: Rufus M¸ller; Jesus: Curtis Streetman; with Suzie LeBlanc, Phyllis Pancella, Daniel Taylor, Nils Brown, Stephen Varcoe. Conducted by Paul Goodwin. Staged by Jonathan Miller. BAM Harvey Theater, performance of April 24.