St. Matthew leaves the Altar, takes to the Philharmonie
By Rebecca Schmid
Peter Sellars’ semi-staging of St. Matthew Passion for the Rundfunkchor Berlin and the Berlin Philharmonic, officially called a “ritualization” on the cover of the production’s recently-released DVD, may be one of his most daring enterprises to date. Interestingly though, Bach’s Passion already has a history as a subject of both artistic reverence and unorthodox reinterpretation. When Felix Mendelssohn brought the work back into fashion upon performing it with Berlin’s Singakademie in 1829—approximately a century after St. Matthew’s Leipzig premiere—he made several cuts to the original score, excluding all solo arias but two. “To think that it had to be an actor and a Jew to bring back the greatest Christian music for the people,” he reportedly exclaimed to his actor-friend, Eduard Devrient, who helped arrange the performance.
St. Matthew is officially a sacred cantata on a libretto by Picander, who set two chapters of the Gospel of Matthew in Luther’s translation, yet its episodic nature alternating arias, recitative, chorales, and choruses has been compared to Greek tragedy. If some scholarly articles are any indication, there may also be less compelling reason to confine the work to a Protestant church than one would think. A 1985 article by Rosalie Atlhol Schellhous in Musical Quarterly argues that the Passion is rooted more in a tradition of mysticism than direct Lutheran values, designating the work as a formal meditation or “mental prayer.”
Sellars, in a bonus interview with Rundfunchor Director Simon Halsey, consciously or unconsciously segues right into this discourse by comparing Bach to a “twelve-step process” that is not just about spiritual but physical transformation. It should be “vividly experiential rather than an intellectual proposition,” he says. “We’re opening it and going inside instead of admiring it as a monument from a distance.” Paradoxically, Sellars’ visual representations only emphasize how skillfully the theatrical and spiritual elements of St. Matthew Passion are embedded in the music itself.
The members of the Rundfunkchor admirably learned their parts by heart and were encouraged by Sellars to allow their individual personalities to shine through as they pondered the weight of Bach’s music. Yet their amateurish expressions of Lebensschmerz distract from its introspective qualities. Dressed in all-black, they walk around stage in a forlorn state during the opening chorus “Komm, ihr Töchter.” At the center of the stage is a tombstone-shaped block on which the Evangelist will lie with his wrists tied in invisible rope at the end of the piece, the chorus huddled around him. I struggled not to cringe at such touch-feely gestures.
It is of course hard to judge the effect this Passion had live. The production premiered in 2010 at the Salzburg Easter Festival and subsequently the Philharmonie, where it was filmed on the Berlin Philharmonic’s own label. Sellars, as he explains to Halsey, was inspired by the “360” pentagonal shape of Hans Scharoun’s architecture and sought to absorb the audience into the event by scattering singers throughout the hall. The footage is expertly edited and covers the full range of shots from various angles, but often lingers close to the stage. As is often the case in audiovisual documents, the close-ups prove bothersome.
Sellars grants the soloists a great deal of artistic freedom, which leads to some positively operatic performances. Magdalena Kožená, incarnating Marry Magdalene, let her hands wander all over the body of the Evangelist (Mark Padmore) during the aria “Buß und Reu,” in which she sings of how sin breaks the heart in two and her desire to anoint Jesus with her tears. Her performance in the second part, in which she accosts the chorus and laments Christ’s fate to the audience, is more moving in its directness. The Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling brings a full, pleasant tone but an unusual amount of vibrato to her arias. Sellars was blessed with what must have been an unexpected naturalist touch given that she was eight-months pregnant when they shot the DVD, which makes it quite dramatic to watch Tilling sing of a traitorous child (“es ist zur Schlange worden”) in “Blüte nur, du liebes Herz.”
The male roles are inhabited even more convincingly. The smooth baritone and dramatic restraint of Christian Gerhaher in the role of Jesus convey more spiritual depth than any action onstage. Padmore lives up to his reputation as one of today’s most seasoned Evangelists, exuding modern fervor and a sense of pathos that is at times overstated but generally effective. Thomas Quasthoff is moving in the bass parts, easily expressing personal redemption in the final aria “Mach dich, mein Herze rein.” Finnish tenor Topi Lehtipuu brings a handsome presence and expressive dramaticism without chewing up the scenery. His dynamic as he kneels pleadingly before the viola da gamba soloist (Hille Perl) in the aria “Geduld, wenn mich falsche Zungen stechen” is straightforward and emotionally immediate, as is his performance alongside oboist Albrecht Mayer in “Ich will bei meinem Jesus wachen.”
Sir Simon Rattle, although less known for his forays into early music, gives an elegant, authentic account of Bach’s score with the Berlin Philharmonic. While this recording will not rival that of John Elliot Gardiner or other specialists, the transparent timbre that Rattle has (albeit controversially) cultivated as music director of his orchestra serves the Passion well. It is also impressive that he single-handedly conducts the surround-sound staging and the double-choir (which includes boy singers from the Staats- und Domchors Berlin). Sellars’ concept places the Philharmonic’s world-class soloists such as Mayer and flutist Emmanuel Pahud into the spotlight they deserve, although I enjoy their playing just as much when they are sitting down.
Tags: Berlin Philharmonic, peter sellars, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey, Sir Simon Rattle