Against a pale yellow background the chorus appears in silhouette, standing in rows. On the back wall of the stage is projected the face of a dying man. As the orchestra and chorus launch into the troubled opening music, one spotlight moves among the singers. It lingers on individuals, for this production of Bach's St. John Passion highlights -- and forces upon all those involved, in the audience as much as onstage -- a reassessment of their own personal relationship to the great tragedy unfolding in their midst.
Performances of the St. John Passion are routine in London at Easter. But this one, in London's Coliseum theater and marking the 250th anniversary of the death of the composer, is unusual in that it has been produced as an opera by British director Deborah Warner.
Some have argued that this music, as dramatic as any ever written, does not need staging. Purists will be offended while others may feel that a theatrical production of a liturgical work is inappropriate. There is a danger, also, of importing histrionics into the music. Who needs to see a singer acting out Peter's tears after betraying Christ when the music depicts them so magnificently, not to mention the crucifixion itself?
Warner's production deals with these objections triumphantly. Just as Bach's music eschews the crudely onomatopoeic (suggesting a cock's crow, for example, by a broken chord in the continuo) so Warner's direction concerns itself with the heart of this work rather than the surface. Chorus and soloists wear understated modern clothes: Pilate in a business suit, Mary in flowing black. In passages with complex activity in the music, chorus movement is minimized. To suggest his crucifixion, bass-baritone Paul Whelan -- a fine dramatic singer with a powerful stage presence -- leans against one of three vertical wooden pillars. At the moment of Christ's death, he simply walks off the stage.
Such restraint heightens the intensity of those moments in the score that lend themselves to dramatic representation: the Evangelist's comforting of Peter (a moving cameo from Leigh Melrose), for example, or Christ's confrontation with David Kempster's excellent Pilate. And the words of the Evangelist, whose role is conflated with that of the beloved disciple John, are rendered with exemplary clarity in Neil Jenkins' English version by tenor Mark Padmore.
Padmore sings as gloriously as would be expected from one who has recorded the role of the Evangelist and performed it in Europe many times. What is a revelation here is the power of his acting. For Padmore, the process of rehearsing an operatic production enabled the powerful psychological effect of the work to be tested, particularly when sung in English, the language of the audience. And singing in an opera house -- not a church -- alters the experience profoundly. "You're not preaching to the converted," he says. "In church people are too accepting of it, in their own way of understanding, and this particular version does challenge that. It's something that should disturb and upset."
That it certainly does, and there are many moments when the audience is rapt and entirely involved -- at the very end, for example, when Padmore cradles a sacrificial lamb in his arms during the final consolatory chorus, his face expressing an agony of personal grief.
Even a production as respectful as this one, never upstaging the music with theatrical effects, presents problems for the musicians. Bach's complex counterpoints are written for singers and instrumentalists who would have been close together in his vision, whereas the operatic nature of this production forces them apart. Says conductor Stephen Layton, making his debut with the English National Opera: "That's a challenge, to put that together and make it work. In many of the choruses the flutes and oboes duck and dive in between the choir; they all work together in the counterpoint. If you've got counterpoint in the orchestra at the front of the stage and then you've got counterpoint in the choir at a distance that's obviously tricky and that wasn't Bach's intention of the chorus dynamic; but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try it. I think we proved it worked."
It certainly works. Musically, there is much to relish in the performance. Inviting the audience to join in with some of the chorales, which are sung by a choir separated from the action onstage, encourages the feeling of a shared religious ritual and echoes the practice of Bach's day. And regardless of conscience or belief, there can-not be many in the audience who are not deeply moved by the human drama played out in front of them.