Bach: St John Passion with ENO (Concert Review - Opera, 2000)

Seeing the light

It may not be what Bach intended, but ENO's St John Passion is a unique event.

The live lamb at the close is a mistake. Nothing wrong with the image - borrowed from Zurbarán's Agnus Dei - but the little beast's pitiful bleating provoked laughter when most of us were sitting awe-struck by Bach's grief-laden music and Deborah Warner's otherwise scrupulously reverential staging of his St John Passion, English National Opera's millennial nod to Christianity and an anniversary tribute to the composer who wrote no operas and died 250 years ago. Despite this, there was a palpable sense in the auditorium that something extraordinary - theatrically - had taken place. Warner's staging and ENO's musical performance have provoked an astonishing variety of responses among my colleagues: from religious rebirth, via mocking cynicism, to shrill hysteria. ENO must, of course, have realised it was courting controversy by mounting this piece in the first place - there will be more trouble ahead when it stages Verdi's Requiem before Christmas - although Jonathan Miller's in many ways comparable treatment of Bach's St Matthew Passion caused nothing like this much fuss in 1993, perhaps because it was staged in a church. But Warner and ENO make no claims for Bach's first Passion oratorio as a closet opera: rather, they "translate" its universal message into vividly contemporary terms. In an age when faith in God is at a premium, Christ's suffering and death still symbolise everyday occurrences throughout a world in which political and religious persecution remain rife. The beauty of Warner's approach is its utter simplicity and fidelity to Bach's conception of the Passion story as a communal ritual. Arguments still rage about the forces Bach employed in his Leipzig churches, and it is not at all clear that there was audience participation in the singing of the chorales. But Warner hit on the brilliant idea of using ENO's professional chorus for the "action" choruses, while assigning the majority of the chorales to amateur choristers and inviting the audience to join in three of them - hymn sheets were provided. Whatever the authenticity of this solution, at least it served to delineate the levels of commentary contained within the structure of Bach's mighty work. For, in one crucial sense, the Passions resemble Greek tragedy - the chorus responds to the events of the dramatic narrative sung by the Evangelist - and Warner and her designers, Tom Pye (set, costumes and video) and Jean Kalman (set and lighting), bring a spartan, classical timelessness to the drama, exposing raw emotions but with a disarming understatement. One felt throughout the director's scrupulous refusal to melodramatise and cheapen the narrative with an excess of extraneous action and scenic paraphernalia. So the Ecce Homo episode and the scourging of Jesus were represented by barely perceptible projections: a single drop of blood trickling down a video of Paul Whelan's face while the singer was adorned with a barbed-wire "crown of thorns" on stage. The scourging was accomplished with even more subtlety and good taste, the screen showing a view of Whelan's exposed back sustaining invisible blows and the singer himself recapitulating the same movement in the flesh. No whips and no bloody weals, heaven be praised. Pye's set is similarly discreet: two movable platforms, and for the opening and close a galaxy of light bulbs descending like stars - an utterly magical effect. It is Warner's brilliant handling of the chorus as a volatile community of individuals, however, that makes such compelling theatre of this St John Passion. In the opening movement, we see the chorus in silhouette, but a spotlight picks out each singer one at a time - the chorus in the Passion is us - and she manoeuvres them so cleverly that the four aria soloists emerge from the crowd as if they were continually on stage: in their arias they articulate the sympathy of the faithful, so that the mob baying for Christ's blood and the reflective sympathy of the individual stand in the sharpest contrast - exactly the effect Bach was striving for, surely. There is, of course, one insuper-able problem: we have become so accustomed to specialist professional ensembles such as John Eliot Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir or Harry Christophers's The Sixteen in this music that a non-specialist opera chorus inevitably sounds not quite right today. Some of the comments on the ENO Chorus's Bach have been harsh - and, truth to tell, the counterpoint of the opening chorus was less than ideally clear - but they also have to sing Verdi and Wagner, and they sing Bach with a comparable fervour if not idiomatic style. Rather this, any day, than the turgid routine of the so-called Bach Choir in these works. Nor, surprisingly, do the soloists offer state-of-the-art baroque style. The sweet-toned soprano Natalie Christie sang her radiant arias joylessly. Even more disappointing was the colourless singing of Catherine Wyn-Rogers, a throwback to the hooty oratorio contralto style one had thought gone for ever. Barry Banks, Michael George and Leigh Melrose did solid service in the tenor and bass arias and in the role of the Apostle Peter. There are three outstanding performances, however: David Kempster, in a grey suit - adjusting his tie as he makes his entrance - is the prevaricating Pilate to the life, a slippery political trimmer. Whelan's Jesus is a towering figure, charismatic yet strangely vulnerable, who inspires profound pity with his beautiful singing and the quiet dignity of his presence. Above all there is Mark Padmore's wonderful Evangelist, the beloved disciple St John, who sings the harrowing narration with a subjective intensity that is ultimately devastating: after the Crucifixion, he crumbles with grief, comforted by Melrose's Peter in the most piteous image of Warner's wonderful staging. The conductor is the excellent Stephen Layton, a Bach specialist who can't quite disguise the compromises necessitated by the musical infrastructure of a metropolitan opera company - but Bach's music is, as always, overwhelming, the ultimate vindication for this unique and uniquely powerful event. The three more chances to catch it - Monday, Tuesday and Easter Saturday - are not to be missed.

Hugh Canning