Campfield Market Hall in Manchester offered the perfect stage for this unique and inspirational performance, which I hope inspires more of its kind. Its raw and cavernous setting allowed a potent blank canvas upon which Penny Woodcock and designer Dick Bird devised not only intimate and gut-wrenchingly human moments, but technologically-advanced scenes to accentuate the epic Biblical narrative, with an acknowledged nod to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 film, Gospel According to St Matthew.

Streetwise Opera's <i>The Passion</i> © Graeme Cooper
Streetwise Opera's The Passion
© Graeme Cooper

However, this space of dramatic potential would be beautifully barren if not filled with contemporary tools, a cast, a production team, directors and players. And an audience, cleverly cast when denied our seats and our traditional perspective. Our part, it felt, was an augmentation of the Witnesses. Our standing, swimming crowds were broken up by film equipment, those working it, and the physical path of Matthew’s narrative and Bach’s music. The cameras were placed sparsely, like dead trees in a desert landscape – static and active as required, which incidentally lies deep within the music itself.

Bach arguably encouraged the appropriate libretto to suit both the terms of the Gospel, and his musical composition, with a number of revisions true to his style and the time. This was mirrored by Woolcock’s experience in tailoring the sacred oratorio to suit this project. I will not forget a valuable nugget given to me, specifically in regard to ‘early music’: There’s nothing more authentic than being practical. I feel this an appropriate piece in which to pass this on. The nature of this unique performance speaks volumes of the flexibility and accessibility of early music and operatic components.

Anita Ferguson (Jesus) and Joshua Ellicott (Evangelist) © Graeme Cooper
Anita Ferguson (Jesus) and Joshua Ellicott (Evangelist)
© Graeme Cooper

Not only did Streetwise and The Sixteen digest the St Matthew Passion for themselves, they brought it to life in an authentic way. Not least because the première took place on Good Friday, just as Bach’s did. It is clear that, in many cases, the story and composition spoke on a personal level. This intimacy and understanding shone through in the performance. It was integral to the unfaltering vocal control of all the soloists.

Joshua Ellicott was a beautifully efficient Evangelist, such a bright and lively voice. His effortless vocalising led and smoothed every plot twist and turn, embodying his role’s narrative control. Stand-out soloists include David Owen-Lewis (Caiaphas), Jonathan Ainscough (Peter), Gavin Bailey (Pilate), and Msurshima Yongo (Jesus 3). Her voice had particularly flexibility and a smooth and controlled upper range. Between the sumptuous tones of The Sixteen and the whisperings of the technicians, all voices resounded in the extraordinarily moving production. Also particularly effective and enjoyable was the integration of members of the orchestra in the dramatic movement of the performance.

Msurshima Yongo (Jesus) © Graeme Cooper
Msurshima Yongo (Jesus)
© Graeme Cooper

In all, this was a performance of serious integrity coupled with the most natural music-and-arts-making there seems possible. It was delivered faultlessly (made all the more imposing by highly exposing zoomed-in camera work projected on the backdrop of the main stage throughout the performance). And James MacMillan's new choral composition for the finale was a warm and meaningful tribute to all members of the project. It was a specially tailored Matthew Passion – shortened, without early instruments, and in English. But in these characteristics, a wealth of truth and meaning bound the piece to its origins. As a result, the authenticity and passion of the production was breath-taking. It was something I am sure all who attended were glad to have witnessed.

****1