BWW Review: ST JOHN PASSION, Blackheath Halls, 6 November 2016
It's not theatre but it's not a "gig" either - my first attendance at an oratorio was something in between formats with which I am familiar. The lights stayed up, the musicians were placed centrally on a dais and the singers moved around, acting a little, but in no way playing parts as they would in opera or a musical. Filing into the splendid concert hall after a walk across a wild, windswept Blackheath, I almost chose to sit in the seats reserved for the choirs - that's how much of a tyro I am in this field of musical performance.
In that inexperience, I was not alone in this audience, nor would be (I suspect) in the six remaining dates of the ETO tour. The bold decision to involve local choirs at venues guarantees friends and family attend (I saw lots of parents looking across at the children's choir, no doubt as amazed as I was that the kids could sit for so long without looking at their phones) and it meant that I was not alone in wondering whether to clap after the first "number", as one would at - say - The Sound of Music.
Of course, as audiences do, we soon picked up the tone of the production, one of serious fidelity to the music and proper dues paid to the gravity of the subject matter. Johann Sebastian Bach is a name known to those with even the most fleeting acquaintance with classical music and most of us will have memories of "Passions" from Easter television or University Challenge music rounds - like much "famous" opera, this work is etched into the culture so deeply that we know it without knowing it, a comfort in unfamiliar circumstances.
The subject is the Gospel According To St John's account of the events leading up to the crucifixion and its immediate aftermath. I knew much of the narrative's detail, but what came across strongly in the performance (and it's well worth reading the programme notes and perhaps indulging in a little Wikipediaing beforehand), is just how political the "trial" of Jesus proved to be.
Repeatedly, Pilate pleads with the people to accept that Jesus has done nothing deserving of his fate but they reply (chillingly in strident German) "Kreuzige!". Whether the programme text's identification of those demanding Jesus be crucified as "Die Juden" or the singers' more neutral "Die Leute" is favoured, it's hard not to think of the power of the mob with its bloodlust up, particularly with its target a Jew. That said, conversations with disciples and Pilate have shown that Jesus accepts his terrible fate and rejoices in its consequences for believers - the central message of the Christian faith, after all.
The music, played by The Old Street Band (under Jonathan Peter Kelly) on a range of baroque instruments, is delicate and soaring, calm and climactic, understated and all-encompassing as the drama requires. Never so loud that it is intrusive and close enough to hear every instrument individually if you so wish, the playing is a delight.
The singers are drawn from the ETO's stable currently touring with three productions (reviewed by me, here, here and here). No more than a few feet from anyone as they pace around the platform, sopranos, mezzos, tenors and baritones share the work of The Evangelist (who tells us the story) and the arias that comment on the action. It's all thrillingly delivered at such close quarters.
Best of all are the choral sections, the People's Voice in Bach's structure of the work and the people's voices in this production. The choirs involved at Blackheath were: Trinity Laban's Early Music Vocal Ensemble; Hackney Empire Community Choir; Blackheath Goes Gospel; and Royal Greenwich and Blackheath Halls Youth Choir (but shows will vary around the country). Hearing so many voices raised as one, is never less than exhilarating and, if the singers aren't quite as pin sharp and accurate as their professional colleagues, well that doesn't matter.
Visiting the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery last week, I remarked to a friend of how an atheist like me is enthralled by religious art - the paintings, the texts, the sculptures, the architecture, the majesty of it all - the works creating a secular spirituality that is no less moving to those who do not believe in the divinity of its subject matter. To that list of arts, I can now add music.
Photo Robert Workman.