Move over Netrebko and Kaufmann: the hottest ticket in London on Tuesday night was the first UK outing of Peter Sellars’ controversial staging of Bach's St John Passion, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.

The Choir of the Enlightenment and Sir Simon Rattle in rehearsal
© Tristram Kenton

This Passion has a strong flavour, notwithstanding whether one should stage these liturgical masterpieces at all. The hand movements and actions during the opening chorus felt rather naff, but as the work unfolds Sellars’ aerobics feel less contrived, balanced by thoughtful blocking for chorus and characters. The action takes place around a low-hanging lamp which frames squares and rectangles in which the singers and soloists from the OAE deliver the arias. It is deft and dramatically economical. The same light interrogates and sanctifies Christ; for Sellars “we can see how the greatest degradation is the other side of infinite glory”.

Christ in this gospel is more assertive, authoritative, heroic even. Sellars’ direction defuses this masculine energy in illuminating ways. Roderick Williams’ Jesus spends much of the performance on his knees, hands crossed behind his back, vulnerably barefoot, blindfolded like a political dissident facing summary justice. As Williams’ mistreatment mounted – dragged, slapped, text spat at him by a vicious chorus – his voice grew more frail, his firm, lyrical baritone giving way to an ethereal, feathery upper register, sometimes barely audible. In his great exchange with Pilate, accompanied by the desolate lute of Robin Jeffrey, Williams engineered silent pauses of abyssal intensity, devastating in their quietness and focus, telling us the story of a human being reduced to near-nothingness; his final, frail “es ist vollbracht” transmigrated us to a spare and etiolated plane of existence.

Mark Padmore, Camilla Tilling, Simon Rattle and OAE soloists
© Tristram Kenton

The rock on which this performance was built was Mark Padmore’s mesmerising Evangelist; his stage presence radiated a gentle purposefulness and understated strength that was reflected in his voice, which managed to shine and melt in equal part. His floated upper register was a thing of wonder, which he deployed to dazzling variety: sometimes ghostly, sometimes pained, sometimes tender. His close attention to the text allowed vivacious word-painting: his “weinete bitterlich” in the closing recitative of Part 1 was one of many spellbinding moments.

The Chorus of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Simon Halsey, never failed to thrill, Sellars’ calisthenics aside. The dissonant extremes of “Kreuzige, kreuzige!” sounded cruelly modern, built on ascending phrases of piercing steel. At other moments they demonstrated striking delicacy: in the great penultimate chorus “Ruht wohl”, pressing on its suspensions with gentle force, or the soft but tautly-articulated lines “Ich, ich und meine Sünden, / Die sich wie Körnlein finden / Des Sandes an dem Meer” (I and my sins / that are as the grains / of sand by the sea).

Roderick Williams and Andrew Staples in rehearsal
© Tristram Kenton

Able solo performances buttressed Padmore and Williams. Tenor Andrew Staples, in slightly coarse voice, gave a performance of fury and intensity in “Ach, mein Sinn”, a picture of guilt and despair. Georg Nigl replaced Christian Gerhaher: his Pilate was a tortured and craven bureaucrat, coldly abdicating moral responsibility in a bland business suit. His exchanges with Williams’ Jesus were thrillingly intense, more spoken than sung and daringly quiet. He also delivered in the great bass arias, offering elegant melancholy and grim determination in “Eilt, eilt” and exquisite legato in “Betrachte, meine Seel”, accompanied by pained pair of viola d’amore overlooking the scourged Christ.

Christine Rice was in warm and dark hued voice, and didn’t stint on the drama in the sepulchral central aria of Part 2, “Es ist Vollbracht”. Her low C-sharp on “Trauernacht”, around which stumbled Richard Tunnicliffe’s tortured viola da gamba, bloomed from gentle hum to burning howl of anguish. Camila Tilling’s soprano brought brightness and lyrical gentleness that balanced the sonic and emotional extremes of colleagues, particularly in a pellucid “Zerfließe, mein Herze”.

Christine Rice and Roderick Williams in rehearsal
© Tristram Kenton

The OAE itself brought savage strings and raw theatricality from the opening churn of “Herr, unser Herrscher”, despite temperamental woodwind tunings and some precarious ensemble moments in the numbers for pairs of instruments and soloists. There was plenty of striking detailing: enigmatic and snake-like oboe di caccia in “Zerfließe, mein Herze”, and cavernous bass playing in “Betrachte, meine Seel”. Rattle was fascinating to watch, highly mobile and ranging across the stage, a lively guide for the audience to the complex textures of the work, collegial and unobtrusive in his direction.

The final words of the last chorale, “O Lord, let your dear angels / Carry my soul when my end comes” died to the sight of Padmore under the central lamp, light failing around him, kneeling in grief while staring in defiant confrontation towards the audience, daring us to take up the moral gauntlet of a work poised between the dark and the light.