Paul Whelan in St Matthew Passion | Concert Hall (Pic: Stephanie Do Rozario)

All over the Christian world this Passiontide, audiences are flocking to performances of one of J S Bach’s greatest masterpieces, his musical adaptation of the trial, crucifixion and death of Jesus of Nazareth according to the Matthew gospel. This and his other Holy Week masterpiece, the St John Passion, are rarely performed outside this liturgical period, for here we have no birth or resurrection narrative such as Handel gives us in his great oratorio, Messiah. 

This is pure tragedy, the hideous torture and humiliating death of the great Christian hero, who breaks the mould by displaying no heroics and no resistance. It is music purely for Good Friday and not for entertainment, and we see Jesus as the gospel writer presents him; alone, deserted, despised and rejected not just by his enemies and his followers, but by God himself.  There is no redemption here, and the only statement from the cross given to him in this gospel is the desperate opening verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

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When we go to hear the Bach Passions, we expect them to be in oratorio style, with choir and musicians dressed in formal attire and unmoving, and only the female soloists wearing any kind of distinctive clothing. We hear the music, and let it lift us to the heights and down into the depths, but we are not always aware of the drama of the narrative. But in this production for Opera Queensland, artistic director Lindy Hume has dramatised it, personalised even the soloists, stress the appalling narrative of the text, and made the music, sublime as it is, just one part of the story.

This does not devalue Bach’s music, but gives it even more depth and texture; when we hear the duet from the alto and soprano as they mourn over the tortured Jesus, they touch and interact with him, and seem to become the Beloved Disciple and Mary the mother of Jesus. Similarly the bass soloist cannot contain his anger and frustration, and stalks the stage beating a fist into his palm. And with everyone dressed in their own casual clothes rather than stage costumes, we are never allowed to become detached from the action, because these are real people, just like us. I think this is a stroke of genius, and confronts us always with the ugly horror of the narrative, rather than letting us lose ourselves in the pure beauty of the music.

It’s high drama, and Hume manages the tricky task of presenting a very real and human Jesus on the cross by removing him from the stage and having him sing the only words given to him in this gospel, the lama sabachthani, unseen from the back of the Concert Hall. But he is always present, for after the nailing to the cross the entire cast of singers looks towards where he is supposed to be, leaving us, the audience, between them with our backs turned to the tragedy. Is this a moral comment or just the exigencies of staging?

This production is a repeat of Hume’s staging at the 2005 Perth Festival, but here Opera Queensland’s Chamber Ensemble is teamed for the first time with the Camerata of St John’s, a very talented ensemble for whom no justification needs to be made. My only quibble is with what so often happens in oratorio, that the orchestra can overwhelm the soloists, and the very poignant emotion of the final lament over the dead body of Jesus was interrupted by unnecessarily loud instrumental noise.

The singers, though, were almost flawless. Sara Macliver humanised her role as the soprano soloist so that she was no mere figurehead, but a participant in the drama — Mary of Magdala or Mary of Nazareth, or both? — and helped to bring the audience into the story rather than allowing us to sit back and watch. Some people find Tobias Cole’s alto voice a little too high, more a male soprano than a counter-tenor, but here he was perfect, singing his duets with Macliver as if they were one voice, and interacting with Paul Whelan’s heart-tearing Jesus as if he were indeed the Beloved Disciple. There was one directorial touch which brought me to tears — while Cole was lamenting Jesus’s suffering, Whelan leaned forward and touched him on the shoulder, an intimate and ultimately daring gesture that upset all the 19th century conventions of detachment.

Andrew Colliss as the bass and Robert Macfarlane as the tenor soloists were equally impressive, again transforming their static roles into real personalities, and their glorious voices capturing the full emotion of the text and the music. The role of the Evangelist is, dramatically speaking, often a thankless one, as he merely narrates the action, but Swedish tenor Leif Aruhn-Solen brings him alive as a participant in the story, as he reacts and expresses his own distress in his pure clear voice.

The only thing that annoyed me about this production was the clumsy, often ungrammatical English translation of the German text that was projected as surtitles. For no apparent reason, there were random changes to the old familiar translations, totally unnecessary as the text was sung in German. But why deprive us of those beautiful words of Bach’s (and our) favourite chorale “O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden”, that we know and love as “O sacred head sore wounded”, and replace them with the banal “O head, full of blood and wounds, full of sorrow and full of scoffing!”. Where’s the poetry in that? And why use the word “seducer” instead of “deceiver” as Jesus was described in the trial?

But these are petty complaints, for it is always to the music we return. The immortal J S Bach, humble church musician, the self-styled servant of God, who was never properly acknowledged in his lifetime, draws us into his own passionate love of and devotion to God in this most sublime piece of music. Unrelentingly he takes us into the depths of pain and sorrow, but also gives us the spiritual consolation that is not there in the biblical text, so that at the end, as we leave Jesus resting quietly in the tomb, we can depart with our own spirits subdued but peaceful.

This St Matthew Passion is given to us in the fullness of what it should be, superb musical drama, superbly realised by Lindy Hume and Opera Queensland.

The details: St Matthew Passion played the Concert Hall, QPAC on March 21-23.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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