How do we handle the Christian heritage of art and music, such as J.S. Bach’s gripping passions and oratorios, in an increasingly secularized society? Is it possible to keep them in repertoire and bring them “up to date”, in the vein of Regietheater? This is the question which Folkoperan in Stockholm seems to be asking, when they take on the challenge of staging the St Matthew Passion.

St Matthew Passion © Folkoperan
St Matthew Passion
© Folkoperan

The production bears the signature of director Joshua Sofaer, who attempts a deconstructed passion without Evangelist. Instead, select ensemble members present their tribulations in pre-recorded interviews by Martin Widman, which are woven into the musical mesh. The result is a slightly sensationalist passion, where the ensemble members – all dressed in street clothes, posing on the steps of the amphitheatre-style stage with the orchestra at the centre -  take turns observing and commiserating with the suffering which we all go through. Instrumental ensemble Rebaroque bring the music to life with riveting passion under the leadership of concertmaster Maria Lindal, with no conductor in sight. Two youth choirs, from the church of Adolf Fredrik and Hägersten respectively, produce fresh renditions of the chorales and choral movements. But the idea of mixing the Swingle Singer-style arrangements of chorales and arias with more traditionally sounding settings is awkwardly eclectic.

The idea of staging the St Matthew Passion, of course, is not new in any way. Choreographer John Neumeier and directors Jonathan Miller and Peter Sellars have undertaken similar missions. The drama is inherent in the story, as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ exaggeratedly underlined – one needs only to look at the altar cupboards of the middle ages to realize the theatrical potential which Bach brought alive in his musical interpretations. Numerous composers have made their own statements, composing new passions – sometimes even with new texts.

In the case of the Folkoperan St Matthew Passion,  the confessions of ensemble members provides a commentary under different headings: Pain, Comfort, Guilt, Love. A spotlight frames the alto soloist Janna Vettergren, while the birth of her first child is unravelled on the screen overhead, followed by the celebrated aria “Erbarme dich”. Similarly, soprano soloist Hanna Holgersson reveals the pain of witnessing her parents' divorce, and her struggle to rebuild confidence and trust, before plunging into the vulnerable aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben”. A flautist tells the story of how she realized that she had betrayed her son by not being present in his life, dedicating herself instead to a new love.

On the right-hand side of the stage, the vocal quartet Real Group sang jazzed-up arrangements into the microphone, making Bach sound like he may well top the billboard list if he were writing pop music for the 21st century. As they coo Magnus Lindman’s Swedish translations of Picander’s text,  the sentimentality and goriness become apparent, as well as the sensualism that borders on eroticism when the unconditional love of Jesus Christ is described and lauded. Rhythms and syncopations are stretched in a jazzy manner, the falsetto of a pop voice replacing the straight tone of the Leipzig boy sopranos. Mirroring the Real Group arrangements, the quartet of soloists, with more traditional sounding classical voices- including the gentle authority of Lars Arvidson’s bass and the youthful sweetness of Conny Thimander’s tenor -  distribute phrases from the chorales, arias or even from the Evangelist amongst them.

The staging is minimalist, with lighting changes and the filmed excerpts providing the only contrasts. Occasional gestures and turned heads direct our attention. It all makes sense, yet I’m not convinced. There is a banality to the entire approach, an undercurrent of condescension. It is as though we, as an audience, are considered not perceptive enough to understand the universal significance and magnitude of Bach’s passion, unless someone points it out to us. In addition, the staging simply lacks theatricality. Singing the St Matthew Passion without holding a score, in combination with filmed interviews, does not, per definition, create a work of art. Neither does interviewing ordinary human beings about their trials and tribulations. Realism collides with the highly stylized ritualization of the Bach score.

An added element would have done the trick; possibly distilling the ‘confessions’ into literary texts, in turn presented dramatically, or actually attempting to stage individual scenes. Some might find Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Jesus Christ Superstar trite, but it sure makes for effective theatre.

Leaving Folkoperan and heading into subway for a ride home amongst all those ordinary, suffering and rejoicing souls who all carry their private passions, I leave the St Matthew Passion behind with a distinct feeling that I will remain a traditionalist vis-à-vis Bach, until the day when a really convincing staging comes along.