This new-to-London St John Passion from Peter Sellars was far removed from any conventional concert-hall presentation as you can have without morphing into opera. But as a semi-staged performance (chorus and soloists singing from memory) recreating Christ’s final days was vividly characterised and as harrowing as any slab of verismo Puccini. For those who accuse Sellars of emotional show-business there’s no denying his sense of theatre and the sheer physicality of his creations makes a compelling and, at times, deeply moving experience.
Making this Passion so convincing was Sellars’s focus on the relationships of the participants surrounding Jesus with feelings of guilt, grief or barbaric hunger enhanced by the interactions from a stellar line-up of soloists and the excellent thirty-strong chorus, the whole fronted by a magisterial Mark Padmore as the Evangelist who combined storyteller with passive onlooker. As beautiful and assured as his voice is, certain passages in the Trial episode felt laboured, momentum slowing dangerously close to inertia.
Crystal-clear too was Sellars’s dramatic emphasis on suffering – manifest by a barefoot Roderick Williams as Christus – frequently blindfolded or bent double under interrogation below a piercing spotlight. Whether kneeling or lying prostrate over another singer, demands were impressively met, despite the muffled tones of an otherwise exemplary George Nigl (a compassionate and repentant Pilate), whose pleading ‘Mein teurer Heiland’ felt initially lost for being partially sung into the floorboards.
So too were there minor problems with Camilla Tilling’s gilt-edged soprano whose voice took a while to accommodate a body language expressing extreme torment. Otherwise she was on heart-rending form, no less so than in the melting lament (with soulful oboe da caccia) in Part Two. Earlier Andrew Staples and two violas da gamba gave a wonderful account of ‘Erwäge, wie sein blut gefärbte’, impressing with clarity of tone and fervour.
Simon Rattle is fiercely dedicated to these immersive performances, but his micro-management is a shade overdone. Why conduct a chorus when it is facing away from you? An impassioned Christine Rice brought searing intensity to ‘Es ist vollbracht’ with perfectly poised interaction between woodwind and continuo players, if only they had been undirected its intimacy might have been absolute. It was Colin Davis who neatly summarised the maestro’s role with “All the conductor has to do is stand back and try not to get in the way.”
Sellars’s trademark sign-language occasionally got in the way too and became redundant in ‘Wir haben ein Gesetz’ in which the chorus appeared to be conducting itself, gestures creating more spectacle than meaning. Yet the casting of lots was marvellously arresting, the choir disturbingly gleeful and Sellars’s “making music visible” tag brilliantly captured. At other times gestural imagery was suggestive as in a superb graveside scene where members of the chorus knelt to evoke the wrapping of Christ in a linen cloth – haunting in its simplicity and resembling an oil-painting from a Renaissance master.
Overall, this was a sublime account that enriched Bach’s music’s natural capacity to give spiritual nourishment; ritualistic, but powerfully projected with a raw physicality and rare alchemy.