If one considers the operatic influences that occur in Bach's St John Passion, taking the work out of the church and into the theatre is not such a bad idea. This is exactly what American director and baritone Dale Duesing did –  and the result is a pearl.

St John Passion © Marco Borggreve
St John Passion
© Marco Borggreve

Duesing sets the action in a library, a place full of stories. The actors are dressed in cool grey and blue colours and the choir sits on chairs at the edges of the stage; the action takes place in the middle stage against a background of bookshelves. Because the work is performed in a theatre, the orchestra, conducted by Klaas Stok, is moved to the pit, creating some distance between the musicians and the singers. In the beginning the gap between the two could be heard; unfinished notes gave the impression the orchestra still needed to warm up a bit. But they soon did and made for some wonderful highlights, especially during the choral parts sung by the Jews, such as “Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn”. Here, music and text come together –  the musicians’ passionate play is like the words sung by the choir – stinging, biting. In the chorales and the recitatives, Stok chooses a continual pace for the music that prevents it from ever sounding dull or slow.

The star of the performance was the Evangelist, played by Robert Burt. He lived the story as he told it, breaking down as Jesus is chastised and seeking refuge with Mary as they weep over him. This light, pleasant tenor is a narrator through and through. Equally laudable was Quirijn de Lang. As Jesus, he did not move or sing much and spent most of the performance standing still – but he did so with fervour! De Lang had a beautifully serene appearance. His deep voice, which almost did not seem to fit his appearance, permeated the auditorium. Soprano Hanneke de Wit, who took on the role of his mother Mary, sang “Zerfließe, mein Herze, in Fluten der Zähren” in a warm, mature voice. It was filled with sorrow, expressing the meaning of the text so well that at the end of the aria, you could not help but cry along with her.

St John Passion © Marco Borggreve
St John Passion
© Marco Borggreve

Staging the St John Passion has been a brilliant idea. It is intriguing how much more powerful the message of the work becomes as the text is played out, instead of sung by a static group of singers, as is common practice with oratorios. There are many times where the text suddenly hits you harder because of the theatrical action. Take for example the moment where the Jews encircle Jesus' disciple Simon Peter: as he shrinks back, they threaten him with the words “Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?” (“Are you not one of this man's disciples?”), blaming him for being involved with Jesus. You see why he becomes scared, feels trapped and, consequently, lies: “Ich bin’s nicht” (“I am not”). Or look at the moment where the angry jews walk up to Pontius Pilate, making wild hand gestures, yelling “Weg, weg mit dem, kreuzige ihn”, (“Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”) commanding Pilate to kill Jesus. You witness Pilate being harassed by the crowd, then getting himself together and pushing away the group that now surrounds him. Or the moment where the crowd yells “Sei gegrüßet, lieber Jüdenkönig” as they roll over from laughing, pointing at Jesus, making fun of him, as he stands there with the crown of thorns. You feel disgust seeing the crowd fight over Jesus' cloak, greedily grabbing. Suddenly, it is all so much more intense.

Duesing's Passion captivated me from the beginning until the moving moment where “Es ist vollbracht” (“It is accomplished”). The performers excelled both musically and dramatically and completely blew away a sceptic agnostic like myself. Did it work? Yes, I have been converted – to Bach and his St John Passion.