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Sundry Passions

St John's, Smith Square
04/21/2000 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: St John Passion
Ian Bostridge (Evangelist), Stephan Loges (Jesus), Thomas Guthrie (Pilate), Emma Kirkby (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (alto), James Gilchrist (tenor), Colin Campbell (bass)
Polyphony, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Stephen Layton (conductor)

Polyphony's Bach Passion at St John's is a Good Friday fixture that has nothing to do with football. But it has as much as many church services to do with a spiritual engagement with suffering and rebirth. This year's performers were almost impeccable, and Stephen Layton's direction produced musical results that were often far more dramatic than in Deborah Warner's staged production at the ENO.

The action of the St John Passion often seems not quite coherent, but in this peformance it found points of intense focus that made an engaging emotional progression. The self-pity of Peter's weeping, narrated by the Evangelist, revealed an inadequacy in the opening arias, which make facile claims of grief and loyalty. Pilate's release of Barabbas and his torture of Jesus was a swift transition from the violence of a chorus through the Evangelist's dislocated narration and a strange, almost expressionist instrumental introduction to an arioso and aria that recovered a redemptive meaning from the cruelty. And Jesus's redemptive acceptance of his suffering at the moment of his death was an amazing collaboration between Evangelist, Christus and aria.

Catherine Wyn-Rogers was much more focussed and coherent in the alto arias than she was at the first ENO performance. Perhaps the more familar German text helps, and the smaller space of St John's. Ian Bostridge's Evangelist was forceful, not remotely clerical or sentimental, and fully focussed on the meaning of the narrative. His voice is still beautiful, and seems to be getting bigger. James Gilchrist was also stirring in the tenor arias.

Stephan Loges, only just out of Guildhall, was a striking presence as Jesus. This role, based strictly on the words in the gospel text which has a completely different narrative method, is shapeless, and there is not enough of it for the singer to build up a dramatic presence as the Evangelist can. This Jesus, though, was unquestionably the purpose of the Evangelist's narrative. Familiarity leads us to hear Jesus' words "Es ist vollbracht" as the lead-in to the alto aria that follows, but Loges made them sound like the end of everything. The apparent seamlessness and serenity of his delivery made a powerful contrast with Bostridge's rhetorical Evangelist. Loges is a baritone, and his lower range doesn't quite have the force you expect in a Christus, but his singing has more than enough authority to make up for it.

The Orchestra of the Age of Englightenment was in superb form, as was Polyphony, delivering violence of terrifying focus in the crowd choruses.

On the following day, another viewing of Deborah Warner's ENO production of the St John Passion didn't quite clear up what it was about, or for. Left to his own devices, Layton had found plenty in the music. Warner's efforts to externalize the meaning somehow diffused it, quite apart from the lack of clarity caused by the unecclesiastical conditions in the Coliseum. Mark Padmore's Evangelist still held everything together with searing emotion. Catherine Wyn-Rogers' arias worked better. Paul Whelan's Jesus was expressive, but just a little too redolent of Godspell in appearance. The real problem, in contrast to the Polyphony performance, was the generalization of emotion and the lack of distinction between the styles of the crowd choruses and monumental choruses, and between narrative, speech and commentary generally. Still, the audience seemed to find it worthwhile and moving, and you have to admire the ENO for trying something so difficult.

H.E. Elsom



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