It is rare to experience a classical music performance that is at once theater, concert and, above all, a tremendously moving spiritual drama. The Berlin Philharmonic, solo singers and chorus, working with director Peter Sellars, succeeded in recreating the theatrical performance of the St Matthew Passion originated in Berlin’s Philharmonie in New York’s cavernous Park Avenue Armory, as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.

Magdalena Kožená and Mark Padmore; Berliner Philharmoniker/ Sir Simon Rattle © Richard Termine
Magdalena Kožená and Mark Padmore; Berliner Philharmoniker/ Sir Simon Rattle
© Richard Termine

A small stage is placed in the center of the hall, with about 15 steeply raked rows of seats surrounding it; the arrangement affords an excellent vantage point from almost every seat.  The orchestra players, all clad in black, are divided into two groups, as are the similarly clad chorus members. The first half also features the Boys Choir whose members mostly sing from high above the stage, moving energetically at times among the audience. Due to the vastness of the hall, singers are miked but very discreetly. Sir Simon Rattle conducts mostly from his podium in front of one of the orchestra, while occasionally directing the musical action in front of the other orchestra. When soloists are accompanied by solo musicians, Rattle often watches and observes without losing his keen concentration.

As the audience slowly files into the theater, they are confronted by a singular presence on the stage, that of the tenor Mark Padmore, with a few wooden boxes which serve as only props. Padmore sits alone on one of the boxes, his posture indicating tremendous sadness and dejection even before the music begins. His quiet presence sets the tone of the performance which is a contemplation on human existence with its misery, cruelty, compassion and salvation. Bach’s musical masterpiece is given a fresh and unexpected perspective that sometimes seems to transcend its original religious context, while staying true to its musical foundation. This is a superb example of a classic being given a modern interpretation that is universal in its message while depicting a specific event in the Bible.

The anticipation among the audience was so high that it was almost a relief when the musicians took their place and the familiar Bach’s music finally began. The music alternates seamlessly from chorus to chorale to recitative, then back to chorus, interspersed with arias sung by soloists enacting such roles as Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Peter and Pontius Pilate. There is considerable acting, both vocally and physically, by soloists and chorus, the latter acting both as commentators on the action as well as active participants, sometimes as angry mob, or as witness to the brutality inflicted upon Jesus. At the end of the performance, there is no relief but quiet resignation. As chorus members surround the soloists and huddle around a long box that could be Jesus’ coffin, some seem genuinely affected by the grief of the music they have sung all evening. The last few pieces of music are performed with the entire hall in almost total darkness with only the stage lit up. The audience was respectful of the long silence after the music ceased; only when Rattle lowered his raised arms did the applause begin. Just as the end of the first and last acts of Wagner’s opera Parsifal, I would have preferred the hushed and respectful silence to have endured much longer.

Eric Owens and Mark Padmore; Berliner Philharmoniker/ Sir Simon Rattle © Richard Termine
Eric Owens and Mark Padmore; Berliner Philharmoniker/ Sir Simon Rattle
© Richard Termine

The musical performance was of high quality, reflecting the fact that the musicians, soloists and the chorus, with the exception of the Boys Choir, have collaborated on this project in Berlin in 2013 (it was also performed in Salzburg and Berlin in 2010 with a different bass).   The exquisite chorus framed the performance with many familiar melodies, sung entirely from memory. The mighty Berlin musicians showed that, true to their reputation of being highly flexible, they can play Bach’s sweeping melodies as finely detailed chamber music. Solo playing of winds with the soprano, of strings with the mezzo, and also with the bass, all had a flavor of true intertwining of the instruments and the human voice, with the voice acting as another instrument. At times solo instruments and human voices carried on extended conversation. Musical transitions, with silence, were often dramatic and gripping as the mood and tension of the previous piece hang in the air.

Of the excellent soloists, Mark Padmore’s Evangellist stood out as his clear and piercing tenor recited the story of the last days of Jesus. He was on stage during the entire performance, and acted the part of Jesus when he was not singing. His facial expression and body language showed heartbreaking suffering and grief, and he colored his voice to reflect the emotion at hand. Christian Gerhaher's Jesus was authoritative, yet vulnerable; he sang from a higher level among the audience, never on stage, and as Jesus’s death gets closer he physically moved further away, and his last cry, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” seemed to come off stage, away from audience view. Soprano Camilla Tilling and mezzo Magdalena Kožená were both excellent. Tilling’s pure and penetrating singing was both joyous and sorrowful, and Kozena’s medium weight mezzo conveyed anguish and agitation. Eric Owens' two arias were counterpoint to the otherwise largely bright and clear timbre of other soloists. His bass-baritone was in excellent form, and he excelled in his solo in Second Part, “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” which was truly heart breaking.

Sellars and Rattle are to be commended for their vision and courage to bring Bach’s music out of church and concert hall into a live theater, with each musician actively engaged in the drama of the music. This performance even made the boundary between the performers and audience obscure as the audience was given a gift not only of a superb musical performance but of an opportunity to contemplate on life and death.