Johann Sebastian Bach: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244: A Ballet by John Neumeier
Peter Schreier (Evangelist), Bernd Weikl (Jesus, Bass), Mitsuko Shirai (soprano), Marga Schiml (alto), Franz Grundheber (bass), St.-Michaelis-Orchester, St.-Michaelis-Chor, Knabenchor Hannover, Knabenchor St. Michaelis, Günter Jena (conductor), Hamburg Ballet, John Neumeier (choreography, staging, scenery and costumes), Thomas Grimm (TV director)
Recorded live at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany (2005) – 211’
Arthaus Musik # 109218 (Blu-ray # 109219) – PCM Stereo –Picture Format 16:9 1080i High Definition – Region Free – 2 Blu-ray discs with booklet essays in English, French and German
Johann Sebastian Bach: St. John Passion, BWV 245
Mark Padmore (Evangelist), Christian Gerhaher (Pilatus, Petrus), Camilla Tilling (soprano), Magdalena Kozena (contralto), Topi Lehtipuu (tenor), Roderick Williams (bass), Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey (conductor), Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (conductor), Peter Sellars (director), Daniel Finkernagel and Alexander Lück (video direction)
Recorded live at the Berlin Philharmonie, Germany (February/March, 2014) – 135’ (concert), 52’ (bonus)
Berlin Philharmonic # BPHR 140031 – PCM Stereo, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 – Picture Format 16:9 1080i High Definition – Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean – Region Free – 2 DVD Discs and 1 Blu-ray disc with booklet essays in English and German
The inimitable Canadian pianist Glenn Gould famously said that J.S. Bach’s music is, “valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that—its humanity.” There may be no better exemplars of this than the composer’s two Passions. The St. Matthew and St. John are two formidable works in length and difficulty, but are also transcendently personal. The libretti, punctuated by Bach’s searching music, interweaves the scriptural tellings of Christ’s suffering with human, intimate meditations. For a church and composer who believed that the essence of spirituality was a personal relationship with the divine, this is music that fulfills that at the highest level.
As a result, these works are incomparably dramatic. Not only is the existing story full of poignancy but the pathos evicted because of these personal relationships make the Passions an ideal vehicle for dramatic interpretation, a culmination of centuries of perfecting the Passion Play. That the St. John and St. Matthew Passions demand to be staged is only a natural extension of Bach’s music and the history of the Passion Play genre. Here are two examples of staging these two works by two very different artists in two very different ways: Peter Sellars’ direction of the St. John Passion and John Neumeier’s staging of the St. Matthew Passion.
While comparing the two may seem as futile as comparing Aida with Swan Lake, there is some surprising common ground between the two. For the uninitiated, this is Sellars’ second staging of one of the Passions. He had previously staged the St. Matthew for the same Berlin Philharmonic to great acclaim. Sellars’ forces (orchestra, chorus, soloists) occupy the stage of the Philharmonie. All singers are off book and given interactive blocking for the music. Not only does Sellars direct the all-important chorus with stage movements, but also hand gestures meant to heighten the drama. For soloists and chorus, this is remarkably demanding but also brilliantly revealing. The result is, for all intents and purposes, an opera without sets.
John Neumeier, the longtime, visionary director of the Hamburg Ballet, has been presenting his ballet of the St. Matthew since 1980. The performance captured here from 2005 was Neumeier’s final performance as Christ. As a ballet, there are a completely different set of logistical considerations when it comes to the music. Neumeier has utilized a live recording (featuring the esteemed Peter Schreier) of the St. Matthew from one of his first performances of the work in 1980 as the soundtrack ever since. There is no live music and the stage is occupied by a chorus of dancers all dressed in white (contrasted to the mostly black of Sellar’s image) with some moveable benches creatively utilized as a set for various scenes. There are soloist dancers as the main characters, most notably Neumeier as Christ. But we already encounter a huge difference in the two performances as a matter of premise: Neumeier’s dancers are not delivering the music, they are accompanying the music.
Surely, there is a wealth of material that has been choreographed that was not originally meant to be. In fact, I would offer that one of the most enjoyable evenings at the ballet for me was seeing John Neumeier’s sublime The Lady of the Camellias. Part of the genius of Neumeier’s work there was the way in which he was able to bring Chopin’s music into service of the story and then develop movements that brought both music and drama into unity. The challenge with choreographing the St. Matthew Passion isn’t necessarily that it wasn’t meant to be danced. This is an artificial limitation. After all, has there been a composer more influenced by dance form and meter in his music than Bach? The challenge becomes all the more acute when the prescriptive nature of Bach’s beautiful music, the arias, choruses, is lessened in favor of abstract movements to maximize dramatic impact.
Time after time, one gets the impression that the dancers aren’t inhabiting the music, they are instead commenting on it. And when it comes to a choice between the musical form or the dramatic story, Neumeier prefers the dramatic story. The dancers aren’t dancing to the music, they are dancing to the words. Take for example, “Erbarme dich”, one of the most achingly beautiful pieces Bach ever wrote. Neumeier directs his dancers to perform athletic gestures suggesting self-flagellation. It is jarring, and perhaps that is his point, but the choice ignores the incomparable way Bach interweaves the vocal phrase with the solo violin to create a linear idea of masterful skill.
There are moments when Neumeier inhabits the music in his choreography, but he often falls short in fulfilling the form. Neumeier’s gestures are short and halting, as in the “Erbarme”, eschewing long lines. Bach’s music also presents other challenges. With a substantial amount of repetition, Neumeier often repeats gestures and is unable to segue effectively between numbers, resulting in awkward pauses between scenes. Also notable is the problem with choreographing the many recits. Neumeier often resorts to pantomime as a method for relating the action of the story, which is understandable. There are times when this can be effective as in the trial before Pilate, but as a visual, there are a lot of dancers observing other dancers on stage for three hours.
As Neumeier himself notes in his enclosed essay, he “did not wish to attempt a simple dramatic depiction or illustration of the Easter events, but was looking rather for a form to express biblical events with all their religious and human impact, in a manner corresponding to the multi-faceted approach embodied in Bach’s composition.” Not to put words in Neumeier’s mouth, but his ballet is an expression of the Passion story using an amalgam of styles as Bach did. His success at that is indisputable as Neumeier’s work is a remarkable feat of vision and energy, combining pantomime with modern dance and traditional ballet.
Where Neumeier’s work falters though, Sellars’ work finds success. Sellars has at his disposal not only one of the finest orchestras and choruses in the world, but some of the most thoughtful singing artists on the stage today, led by tenor Mark Padmore as the evangelist. Padmore, an exceptionally thoughtful and fluent performer, narrates the action with a knowing focus and pure tenor. He is a masterful storyteller. Padmore is joined by German baritone Christian Gerhaher, another outstanding vocal communicator who portrays Pilate with a pitiable torment. And herein lies a key to this performance’s success: Sellars squeezes the absolute most out of Gerhaher to make his torment a prime focus of his vision. His “Betrachte, meine Seele” is a mellifluous highlight of the work. Also to Sellars’ advantage is the scale of this work, nearly an hour shorter, with a much more focused and tight dramatic arc. Sellars exploits this by focusing his movements to areas highlighted by subtle lighting and giving the viewer a clear plane to follow.
The other soloists are equally as effective, led by the bass voice of Roderick Williams as Jesus. His voice is warm and his deportment noble. Camilla Tilling sings the soprano arias with ease. Tilling’s is a beautifully direct instrument. While Magdalena Kozena lacks true contralto heft, she does offer a fully committed performance with her light mezzo that is appropriately intimate, much like her colleagues. And Topi Lehtipuu is a strong tenor, appropriately more forceful than Padmore, which makes for a nice contrast.
The Rundfunkchor Berlin under Simon Halsey is remarkable. Not only do they sing this difficult music with sublime balance and impeccable musical nuance, but they are, in fact, responsible for much of the action and Sellars gives them plenty to do. This is the “angry mob” of the Passion story and they fulfill this role with gusto. Their gestures are prescribed, but appear spontaneous, not synced with other singers. And there can be many, often. Sellars’ work here is quite effective. The viewer perceives not only the dramatic unity of the chorus, but also Bach’s music in physical motion with the polyphonic textures weaved throughout many of the choral scenes so the listener gets a sense of the individual in the chorus as a dramatic actor. It is a remarkably effective technique for this piece.
Rattle’s Berlin Philharmonic plays a lean performance here, bordering on curt, but it is appropriate. The orchestra plays its part with little sentimentality. Soloists are indeed outstanding, with continuo remarkably unified given the singers’ proximity.
It is unfair to compare these two productions’ video and sound qualities given that they were made almost 10 years apart, but suffice it to say that Arthaus’ release is inferior. The video direction is at time manic with angles often extremely tight that cut off the dancers’ whole bodies. The stark contrast of the white-costumed dancers with the all black background of the stage is harsh with blurred details. Sound is only offered as 2.0 stereo and, most egregious and unacceptable, there are no subtitles available for Bach’s three hour work. This is absolutely maddening. The inclusion of a wide angle fixed camera track is a nice bonus, but the quality is not particularly enjoyable. Its release in the Blu-ray format seems a stretch.
The St. John Passion release from the Berlin Philharmonic’s in-house label is in a beautiful hardback case, containing both DVD and Blu-ray formats with bonus video interviews. The sound and picture are outstanding in every way and the video direction by Daniel Finkernagel does a fine job of focusing the proceedings for the in-home viewer.
Despite their obvious conceptual differences, Bach’s music and drama is a common thread between these two performances. Sellars’ realization is potent in its focus not only on the drama of the story but the interactions between the characters. The humanity of these characters and the humanity of Bach’s music is driven, occasionally uncomfortably, home. There is a remarkable moment when Jesus is on the cross and he tells his apostle, Peter, “Behold your mother.” For Gehaher in the dual role of Peter and Pilate, this is a pivotal moment of realization and he delivers that to the viewer with shattering power. One gets the impression, throughout all aspects of the performance, of a mirror being held up to the viewer, where the humanity of these characters is laid bare for the viewer and those relationships are universal to all who see the work.
Neumeier’s vision is indeed a highly personal one, no less valid, and no less sincere. It is a clear labor of love and spirituality for the great director. And For Neumeier, there is indeed a reflection in his work as well but, for better or worse, the reflection in the mirror is his own.
Matthew Richard Martinez