The St. Matthew Passion at BAM

St. Matthew PassionLast Friday night I went to the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater to see Jonathan Miller's staging of Bach's St. Matthew Passion. I didn't realize this was the fourth time Miller's production has been to BAM (the first was in 1997). But I was intrigued by what I read about it at the beginning of the season. Miller brings the musicians down off the risers and seats them in a circle; two choruses and two sections of an orchestra, facing each other and creating a playing space in the center. All are in street clothes, including the performers who sing the solo parts, and the text is in English.The effect is to bring out the drama, not just in the events of the Passion, but in the meditations it provokes.If you know the piece well, you'll know that a "living stations" approach wouldn't really work, since so much of it is devoted to meditations on the Gospel text. I didn't know the work well at all (aside from the familiar "O Sacred Head Surrounded" chorale), so I wasn't sure what to expect. But while the narrative sections are acted out to an extent, the staging is more about creating relationships among the performers, and emphasizing the emotional texture of the piece. The two choirs engage each other in genuine conversation as they struggle to comprehend the story's events. The vocal soloists and instrumental soloists draw each other into an emotional exchange as they perform.

St. Matthew Passion 2[Photos by Richard Termine]My one complaint was that I found the performer who played Jesus to be surprisingly weak, and not at all comfortable with the naturalistic style the production demands. I often preferred to watch the chorus members react than to watch him when he was at the center of the stage. So that threw the balance off quite a bit. But Rufus Muller is terrific as the Evangelist, and the other soloists all sounded lovely to my ears.The work is certainly not plot-heavy. But seeing the performers in ordinary clothes, looking like anyone I might pass on the street (or see at church), brought out the devotional themes of guilt, grief, and gratitude profoundly, and made me wonder how it all struck those members of the audience who were not in the habit of prayerfully reflecting on the Passion at least a couple times a year. I only wished I could have seen it a week or two earlier, instead of during Easter week! I had trouble getting back into the Passion mood just a week after Good Friday. (At least it was a Friday. In fact, it was Orthodox Good Friday -- but that didn't do me much good.)If you're in the area, you can still catch it for yourself tomorrow or Saturday at 7:30: click here for more information. You can also read the brief review in the New York Times. Jonathan Miller appeared on WNYC's "Leonard Lopate Show" and had some interesting things to say -- you can listen to that interview here. I also just came across this NPR "Visitor's Guide" to the St. Matthew Passion, which I'm looking forward to listening to. I wish I'd known about it before I saw the show! Finally, if you'd like a quick dose of Bach, check out the YouTube clip below. BAM's website linked to it and said it was an excerpt from the show as it was staged in London (back in 1997 or so, judging from the hairdos in the background). The singing here is in German, and I'm not sure the clip gives much of a sense of what the staging is like. But it is still beautiful.[youtube][/yout...

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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