Bach, Animated and Inspiring

Sung by vocalists who dress in street clothes, and sing in English, London's new theatrical version of the 'St. Matthew Passion' excels in its restrained and effective staging.

"His blood be upon us and our children" - these are the words of a spine-tingling choral piece by Bach, one of the greatest examples of all time of the dramatic power of music. The choir that sings these words represents a Jewish crowd in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, as portrayed in the New Testament's description of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, in the Gospel According to Matthew. The crowd demands Jesus' blood and urges the Roman governor to crucify him; by this act, the entire Jewish community seems, in a declarative way, to openly accept the blame for generations to come.

Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" has been recorded hundreds of times, under the baton of conductors from different schools, including Otto Klemperer, Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti, and in recent decades by historically minded performers/Baroque specialists such as Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Ton Koopman and Paul McCreesh. In recent decades the work has also been performed in Israel, without any dithering over the issue of historical awareness, despite its unbearably accusatory text.

bach - Simon Annand - September 23 2011
Simon Annand

As opposed to the works of Wagner (which are not anti-Semitic, as opposed to Wagner himself ), Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" is not considered today to be a Christian anti-Semitic symbol which Jews or Israelis are supposed to boycott.

What happens when this work by Bach - whose genius adds even more power to the accusatory verses in the Gospel - is performed with an added theatrical dimension? British director Jonathan Miller (a declared atheist of Jewish origin, who says that he feels his Jewish identity only when he encounters anti-Semites ) prepared such a version already in 1993, in cooperation with British conductor Paul Goodwin. Miller and Goodwin revived this production of the "St. Matthew Passion" several times since then, and a new, updated version is being performed, as of this week, on the stage of London's National Theatre. It is being sung in English (in a translation by Goodwin ) by British soloists, accompanied by the Southbank Sinfonia, with instrumental soloists drawn from the orchestra. The choir consists of students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Musicologist and literary scholar Prof. Harai Golomb (recently retired from the arts faculty at Tel Aviv University ) and his son, musicologist Dr. Uri Golomb (who completed a doctorate and post-doctoral fellowship on Bach performance at Cambridge University ), attended the dress rehearsal and first preview last weekend. Here are some of their impressions, in a phone conversation from London.

We'll begin with the Jewish aspect. Does this version, which is supposed to be more dramatic, end up being more anti-Semitic than ordinary versions of the "St. Matthew Passion"?

Harai Golomb: "The answer is no. The anti-Semitic basis is not reinforced here. By the way, strangely but perhaps not paradoxically, Jonathan Miller gets close to Bach here in a certain sense. Miller's overall approach is to present the story of the Passion as an internal drama of an individual within himself. As a human being, he can hesitate, sin, have regrets, be sorry. After all, we know from historical research that when Bach performed his Passion, the singer who sung Jesus' role also took part in all the choruses - even those demanding his crucifixion. There is a blurring here of the distinction between the accuser and the accused, between the killer and the victim."

Miller's "St. Matthew Passion" is acted and sung on the stage of the National Theater in ordinary street clothes - the same clothes the musicians and singers wear during rehearsals, each according to their own taste.

"That's part of Miller's concept," says Prof. Golomb. "He doesn't intend to present the actual events described in the Gospel narrative, but rather to represent a situation in which people like ourselves gather to recount these events and reflect upon them. The performance is not meant to create a consistent fictional world dating to a set time and place, as Miller explained to us in an interview. The time and place are the National Theater, September 2011.

"Miller insisted on avoiding a realistic representation. As he put it, 'there is someone who represents Jesus without in fact being Jesus, in the sense that an actor in a production of 'Hamlet' pretends to be Hamlet. So what takes place on stage is neither a play nor a concert ... We found this approach convincing. We also should mention that the stage is arranged in such a way that the division between the performers and the audience is less clear-cut than at an ordinary play or concert. We are meant to feel that the people singing and acting on stage 'are us,' in a sense."

The dramatic aspect of the performance is restrained, Harai and Uri Golomb explain. It consists primarily of singers turning their bodies toward, or focusing their gaze on, the character whom they are addressing or whom they are singing about. All the singers sing everything by heart, and the instrumental obbligato players (playing solos in the arias ) often play by heart as well, rising from their seats in the orchestra to join the singers on stage.

"There's no concrete portrayal of the events, there's no actual beating or crucifixion; there's no cross on the stage at all. Miller says that he wanted to avoid any hint of a 'Hollywood epic.' When the binding of Jesus is mentioned, he folds or crosses his hands, like someone being handcuffed; but no one actually seizes or binds him. One could say that what you see is a group of people who assemble in order to tell the story of the Passion through a performance of Bach's music, and at times they 'enter' into the story to various degrees," says Harai Golomb.

Does that approach serve the music, all in all?

"We think it serves it well, both for the general public and for us with our life-long familiarity and expert knowledge of this masterpiece; the staging enriched our experience of Bach's music. Miller told us that his aim was to 'animate' Bach's music, and he has achieved this: The production intensifies both the spiritual dimension and the dramatic urgency of Bach's music, thanks to the restrained staging, even during the most emotional moments. For example, in the tempestuous section where the choir sings a fugue about thunder and lightning, those singing each of the parts rise, in turn, as they enter with the theme, and the polyphonic structure is wonderfully, dramatically brought to life. But those who rise in unison - the tenors, for example - are actually scattered rather than seated together.

"Another stroke of inspiration: In certain chorales - traditional church hymns, used here to evoke the response of a congregation of believers to the story - each singer looks in a different direction: It's not a uniform, collective gaze as in the other chorales, but rather an expression of personal soul-searching. To sum up, this is a theatrical production that comes from the music and brings us back to the music."