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

What is truth?

THE big question, as posed by Richard Morrison earlier in the week, is if those in the audience at the Coliseum on Wednesday had a religious experience, whether they realised it or not. I should hate to have to define the words "religious experience", but have no hesitation in saying that those present realised that something out of the ordinary was going on. More than two thousand people held in communal and breathless silence in the long, long pauses at key moments - "What is truth?", "He gave up the ghost" - speaks eloquently of what can scarcely be spoken. "Communal" is probably the key word. Performers and audience are as one. The faded Edwardian splendour of the Coliseum's auditorium is all part of it: the dome, even the lions - of Judah, we presume – are lit; amateur choirs throng the boxes to sing the Chorales and the audience is encouraged to join in three of them. It is as though we are in some neo-Wagnerian Grail Temple. All on stage, like us, wear their own everyday clothes, and for once you believe this to be so despite the credit for a costume designer (Tom Pye). To say that there is no hint of false piety or churchiness in Deborah Warner's direction - "realisation" would be a better word - is not to deny or denigrate the "religious experience" quotient. Rather, it is what makes it so. For heaven's sake, it is a good story and it is told straight with only minimal theatrical effects. No set save for a pair of rostra and three emblematic crosses, brief snatches of film, hundreds of light bulbs suspended - a truly magical effect. Otherwise, everything depends on and is drawn from the singers, especially the chorus; wherever you look, whoever you look at, there is a communal intensity of feeling projected at you which you inevitably project back. Is this a theatrical or a religious experience? The two have been inextricably intertwined for three thousand years. The soloists emerge from the communal company and establish their identities, sometimes gradually. At first Mark Padmore's Evangelist, sung with wonderfully lyrical ease, is an almost detached master of ceremonies, comforting Leigh Melrose's Simon Peter after the denial. But he is of course John, the disciple Jesus loved, and detachment cannot last; he breaks down after the crucifixion and is in turn comforted by Barry Banks's compassionate tenor soloist. Catherine Wyn-Rogers emerges as Jesus's mother - the purely human element is always stressed. David Kempster's Pilate, a major role in this telling of the story, is the perfect civil servant, the man-in-suit adjusting his tie, hands clasped behind back, all sweet reason. "Pilate saw that he might release him," - quite so, but that would be too much trouble. Pilate is us. Much has to depend on Jesus, portrayed with the utmost discretion by Paul Whelan, whose physical appearance is fascinating in the context of Neil MacGregor's television series. He looks like what we have been programmed to accept as Jesus. He suggests the scourging with minimal movement on an otherwise still, thronged stage, and the crucifixion by simply touching the cross - no more. Stephen Layton's conducting of a mixed period and modern band moves fleetly; Neil Jenkins's new translation sings well; the chorus is outstanding. The final image is so shattering that I will not describe it, and pray that no other journalist does - just go, and share this overwhelming experience, whatever adjective you care to put in front of it.

Rodney Miles