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The Story of a Man

New York
Harvey Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music
04/17/2009 -  & April 18, 21, 22, 24, 26, 2009
Johann Sebastian Bach: St. Matthew Passion

Rufus Müller (Evangelist and text adaptation for Evangelist), Curtis Streetman (Jesus), Phyllis Pancella (Mezzo-soprano), Suzie LeBlanc (Soprano), Daniel Taylor (Countertenor), Nils Brown (Tenor), Stephen Varcoe (Baritone)
Clarion Orchestra and REBEL Baroque Orchestra, Paul Goodwin (Conductor)
Jonathan Miller (Director), R. Michael Stanco (Lighting Design), Robert Shaw (English singing translation), Leticia D. Baratta (Stage Manager)

Five minutes towards the end of St. Matthew Passion I felt a rare heart-rending moment which old Johann Bach might have felt himself. Slowly climbing up the steps of the darkened theatre auditorium, Jesus disappears from view. But the Evangelist now announces that Jesus is not only suffering agony but that the soldiers are personally torturing Him. The choruses—on stage, disheveled, lounging about in various positions, baffled—look up the steps of the theatre with curiosity, fear, agony, bafflement. And we in the audience inevitably looked up as well. We expected that the music, the words, the hoi polloi in front of us on the stage might have seen the crucified Christ.

He was nowhere to be seen. But such was the dramatic import of Bach’s music and Jonathan Miller’s minimal staging that the illusion was perfect.

This was my first performance of the staged Passion, and I made it a point not to read anything about it. Yet, the title above, pilfered from Prokofiev’s opera, The Life of A Man was doubly appropriate. Jonathan Miller, one-time satirist, now writer, director, medical doctor, and, with Richard Dawkins, Great Britain’s most eloquent atheist, would have been reluctant to make a “religious” pageant of Bach’s work. But second, a reading of the St. Matthew Passion indicates a “secular” work, if taken out of context.

That is, the Lutherans and Catholics of Bach’s day knew the story, and knew that Jesus would be resurrected. But this piece was written for a Good Friday, when one theoretically didn’t know the “conclusion” of the story. So, accidental or not, Bach’s story was the drama of a man—a man both revered and reviled—who, as a rebel of some sort, is arrested, tortured and left to die in the most agonizing fashion.

That could be a parable for our own time, but Dr. Miller stuck to the gospel truth of the two chapters from St. Matthew. “Staging” it (a questionable word) meant giving flesh to Jesus and his sufferings, turning Judas into an unctuous villain, standing apart the crowd, letting Peter deny Jesus three times while sitting miserably by himself, and letting all the peripheral characters come out of the chorus, speaking their parts, and then going back to the crowd.

Adding to this almost spontaneous atmosphere is that this is done in the round. Most of the audience sat in front, with the two choruses opposite each other, Bach’s two orchestras (a traditional Bach size of 13 in each ensemble) conducted from the middle. Two rows behind the second orchestra, some audience members were seated.

The secret of Dr. Miller’s staging is the double chorus and the double orchestra. They are all people. Nobody, including the energetic conductor Paul Goodwin, is dressed in anything approaching formal clothes. Jeans, sloppy t-shirts, a few sandals, some unkempt dresses, and the most informal street clothes is disconcerting for 30 seconds, and then begins to make sense, as we shall see.

The background is equally appropriate. These are the unfinished rough-hewn walls of Harvey Theatre. Their very crudeness not only gives a realistic atmosphere to the Palestinian drama, but the subtle changes of color (mainly going to black during the torment itself) also draws us in.

The beginning is almost as disconcerting as the setting. The chorus is languid, They sit on chairs, on the floor, stretch out, are seemingly unconcerned. And then it begins. That opening chorus, rivaled only by the opening of Bach’s B Minor Mass or Mozart’s Requiem, and the chorus members one by one come to attention, stand up, motion others to stand up. The voices begin with the first chorus, but the repeated barks of “What!!” are an antiphonal from the other chorus, equally spontaneously standing, as if to see what all the fuss is about.

“Gospel” is of course “good news”, and this is gospel news to the musicians and to the audience. After all, the Passion is like a Mystery Play. The story takes surprising turns (a kiss from the villain!), suspense (will the chorus choose to free Jesus or Barrabas?), violence (the crucifixion) and the final question. Will He rise from the dead or not? The answer comes on Easter Sunday, not this Good Friday concert.

That “fuss” comes from the New Testament characters, who informally make their way to a plain wooden table (which is used fro Passover seder and magistrates bench), who are witnesses and participants in the eternal story of a man tortured. Mr. Miller’s staging could be considered minimal, so that every move becomes essential in itself.

This is a drama where the soloists—Pontius Pilate, Judas, Peter—come out of the crowd, yet still remain part of it. Where soloists on the beautiful oboe d’amore or wooden transverse flute approach the circle, the soloists sing to the instrument as if to another person. The chorus itself is far more personal than a Greek chorus. Rather than simply commenting, they takes multiple roles, make decisions, They –and we—are riveted by events as if they have just started.

(One poet, I forget who, commented the Crucifixion of Jesus never ended but takes place over and over again for eternity, such is the agony of the Messiah.)

Jonathan Miller did not stage this as opera, for Bach would never ever have relegated the Passions to that earthly form. (Only Richard Wagner had the chuzpah to plan an opera on the life of Jesus.) But this re-creation by Dr. Miller has the intensity of opera. And with his forces at BAM, he has achieved a kind of everlasting truth.

Mr. Goodwin’s pacing was fast, electric, never stodgily reverent (it’s a story, not a prayer), pushing forth each scene. The orchestra gave a suitably baroque sound (the wind soloists were extraordinary, never a note out of place or out of tune). The all-important choruses—with the double challenge of singing without a score and of rarely looking at the conductor as they acted their roles—was equally electrifying.

So many soloists, so little space. Rufus Müller not only arranged his role as Evangelist but sung with dramatic import from different parts of the stage. Suzie LeBanc, already famed as one of the world’s great Baroque singers, was equally touching as Pontius Pilate (and other parts), and Countertenor Daniel Taylor showed a confidence and purity of voice that was hard to beat.

But central to it all was the almost voiceless Jesus, played by Curtis Streetman. There was nothing holy about his pullover sweater or his paunchy body. But as the evening went on, he became the physical cynosure of the stage. Whether bent over with pain given the Judas Kiss in the midst of the Passover service, or slowly trudging up the steps as if on the Road to Gethsemane, or finally standing again in the middle of the stage, hands clasped, he was the picture of agony, the picture of, yes, passion.

Bach musicologists may well find fault with sins of manuscript omissions, but I refuse to go that way. Jonathan Miller’s Passion was, to me as to everybody in the audience, haunting, moving, emotionally profound in every way. Like any great art, St. Matthew Passion thrives whenever great artists give it life. Dr. Miller has offered, one may humbly say, a radiant resurrection to Bach’s eternal masterpiece.

Harry Rolnick



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