October 2nd, 2011

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St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach, National Theatre

I saw this yesterday at the National Theatre. Again, I had no intention of talking about it, because I am completely unqualified to do so, and because the production closes today (Sunday 2 October). However, having seen it, and been moved by it, I thought I should just post my reaction to the piece.


Cut and pasted from the National's website:

Jonathan Miller’s staging of Bach’s St Matthew Passion will be performed in collaboration with the Southbank Sinfonia.

Bach’s Passion is presented in two parts and retells the dramatic story of the events leading to Christ’s crucifixion. Part one includes the last supper and the betrayal and arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, while part two depicts His trial, crucifixion and burial.

Jonathan Miller strips away all traditional performance conventions of this sacred work: it is sung, in a new English translation by the conductor Paul Goodwin, by soloists and a choir – all casually dressed – who interact with the full orchestra of musicians. The result is a production conveying the full power and overwhelming drama of Bach’s final and most revered Passion.

For more details, follow the link:

Photographer: Simon Annand

I am not qualified to talk about St Matthew Passion. I do not know anything about classical music, orchestral music, singing, choirs or operas. I do occasionally go along to classical musical concerts, and I have even been known to turn up to listen to choirs on very special occasions, but I am not educated or informed about this sort of music or performance. In addition, this was my first experience of any of The Passions. So, unlike with a Shakespeare play, where I have an endless back catalogue to compare and contrast the current production with and judge it against, this is the only Passion I have ever seen and experienced and so I have nothing to compare it to or judge it against. So what I will now write is a very personal response to the piece.

I found the piece deeply moving. The combination of the beautiful and stirring music, with the singers on stage re-enacting the key scenes, was very powerful. I especially liked the occasions when a musician stood right next to a singer and the music and the singing melded into one. Obviously as a new Christian, with Jesus playing an increasing part in my life, the piece is moving to me. But what I would say, for non-Christians, humanists, atheists, secularists, etc is that, regardless of your faith or non-religious belief system, you will find this piece moving and powerful. As a little girl, and a confirmed and committed atheist, with a firm conviction that there was no God, one of the films/television dramas that I found most inspiring, and that I got a lot out of, was Franco Zeffirelli's Jesus of Nazareth, starring Robert Powell. In a time before videos, DVDs, SkyPlus, iPlayer, 4 On Demand, the internet, downloads etc, I made sure I was in front of the television when that series was on! That production made a very strong impact and impression on my young mind, and I remember it vividly to this day.

For those unfamiliar with The Passion, as I was and am, I was greatly helped by buying the programme in advance of seeing the production. It meant that I had the programme, with the whole text, with me and in front of me, as the production played out before me. I personally found that really helpful as I could follow every single word that was being sung, and if I missed something I could catch up by cross-referencing. What I ended up doing was reading ahead, so I knew what was coming. I am making this all sound like very hard work but, believe me, the words are few (it is not like a playtext) and it is doss easy! So, what I am saying is that, for me, having the words/text in front of me to refer to and to follow, greatly improved and enhanced my understanding and appreciation of the piece.

In terms of the singers, all of it was outstanding, but I did want to give a special shout out to Andrew Staples in the role of the Evangelist. He is the person narrating the story, and moving the plot along, so it is vital that you understand and follow what he is singing. His clarity and diction was excellent, you could hear every single word he sang, and his singing was beautiful.

Finally, I had opted for one of the special onstage seating, which were just £12. The production is performed in the round. The onstage seats are at the back of the stage so that you are directly facing onto the Olivier audience, so you get to see the view that a performer would get as they step onto the Olivier stage. I have only once been onto the Olivier stage before and that was at the Backstage Tour that they ran for Patrons earlier this Summer. It was special. Being seated on the Olivier stage with a production playing out in front of you was even more special and it quite took my breath away! Also, the production truly is performed in the round, so you are missing nothing, you are right up close to the singers and the orchestra, and you can see the Olivier audience right in front of you. The National says in its flyer and on its website that the onstage seating gives you "a unique experience of this spectacular performance". I would actually argue this is a once in a lifetime opportunity not to be missed!

Photographer: Simon Annand

A selected extract from the piece that spoke to me:

No. 53
Entrust your ways to him,
and all your heart's distress.
His wisdom and his bidding do highest heaven confess.
By him the clouds are ordered, the winds arise and blow.
He best can choose the pathway, where on your feet should go.