On the 7+ hour flight on Lufthanza from Frankfurt to Boston, I flipped through the available entertainment channels and was pleasantly surprised to find a video of Bach’s St. John Passion performance by the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle. What caught my eye in the opening credits was “staging by Peter Sellars,” and I started watching and couldn’t tear myself away. The video opened with the chorus lying down on the floor and writhing as though in pain. With each iteration of “Herr” (Lord), each singer arose and stretched out their arms as in a plea for help, then laid back down. Everything was memorized, of course, but can you imagine how hard it would be to sing and then to do all the choreography besides?
Here’s what the program notes say:
Strictly speaking, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions – with their recitatives, arias and choruses – contain the central components of a dramatic work. And in actual fact some Bach contemporaries found the pieces (too) operatic, as evidenced by a report from the Saxon pastor Christian Gerber in 1732 about a performance of the St. Matthew Passion: “When this theatrical music began, all the people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment, they looked at one another and said: ‘What will become of this?’ An elderly widow of the nobility exclaimed: ‘God save us, my children! It’s just as if we were at a comic opera.’”
The passion story with its truly dramatic action evokes in the listeners almost of its own accord imaginary scenery in which Jesus, Peter, Pilate, the Apostles and the people seem to act as if on a stage. Already in 1921 Ferruccio Busoni was thinking about a dramatic performance of the St. Matthew Passion, at which the dramatic action would take place on two stages built on top of each other.
In 2010 Peter Sellars staged the work at Salzburg Easter Festival and in the Berlin Philharmonie. It has also been released as a DVD production. Now Bach’s St. John Passion is being staged on the “philharmonic stage”: “It is not theatre. It is a prayer, a meditation,” the director says. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor Berlin and (with the exception of Roderick Williams) the soloist ensemble already heard in Sellars’ realisation of the St. Matthew Passion will sing.
You can see the trailer by clicking here. There is also a DVD available for purchase.
I can just hear Carl clucking away and saying, “all that moving around was completely unnecessary! There is enough drama in Bach’s music!” But see for yourself, and tell me what you think.