J.S. Bach didn’t write an opera, but if he had, it’d probably be the best opera in the world. Fortunately for us, he wrote the next best thing, his Mattäus-Passion, a work of such dramatic power, that even in the concert or church settings in which it is usually performed, its highly emotional narrative thread is still captivating. However, it is precisely this dramatic element, which demands it to be sung as a work of theatre, full of bare human sentiment. The singers are representing real characters with real emotions and the audience should feel that and suffer with them.

In so many ways the Dresdner Kreuzchor’s performance with the Dresdner Philharmonie was one full of depth and emotion, perfectly balanced with a respect for Bach’s music and baroque performance practice. The orchestra played beautifully throughout, with only a hint of vibrato, and a balanced, blended sound. The obligati were particularly enjoyable, with Undine Röhner-Stolle’s oboe solo in “Ich will bei meine Jesu wachen” standing out as one of the evening’s highlights. Kreuzkantor Roderich Kreile’s connection to Bach’s heart-wrenching passion music was also clear, not only in how he worked with the orchestra, but in his clear and detailed preparation of the choir. The young singers of the Kreuzchor (none older than nineteen) sung this technically and emotionally challenging music with a sense of meaning and understanding which belied their years. No subtlety of the text felt ignored and there was nothing at all routine about any moment of the evening. Every chorus and chorale was sung with conviction.

As the Evangelist, the American tenor Thomas Cooley reconciled the dramatic aspects with the role of impartial narrator impressively. His voice works well in this repertoire, with great declamation of the German text, and a clear but colourful tone which at times allows Luther’s biblical texts to speak for themselves, and at others brings forth all the anger and pathos one could hope for. Matthias Weichert is similarly impressive in the role of Jesus, seeming to focus on Jesus as a man rather than as an incarnation of God. When Weichert sings we suffer with him, we feel his anger and even his doubt and confusion. Bass soloist, Christopher Pohl, a member of the Sächsische Staatsoper’s ensemble, was also superb, with a deep dramatic engagement with his text, especially when embodying specific figures, and his strong voice lent both his recitatives and his arias a sense gravitas, which fitted the severe nature of the music he sung.

Sadly not all the soloists lived up to these impressive examples. Soprano soloist Ute Selbig has a fine voice, which is well suited to this music, singing with a clear, clean sound, and just the right amount of vibrato. However, her performance didn’t move me in the same was as Weichert’s and Cooley’s. The soprano arias are full of complex emotions which I felt were left unexplored, the first “Blute nur” is full of painful imagery of Judas’ betrayal, but I couldn’t feel this in Selbig’s performance. Moncayo von Hase, singing the alto arias, was similarly disappointing. Though her she produces a beautiful sound, there were issues in intonation throughout the evening, which soon became difficult to overlook, and she, like Selbig, didn’t engage with the work on an emotional level. My favourite aria in this monumental work, “Erbarme dich”, is a desperate prayer for God’s mercy, and von Hase’s performance didn’t bring this across.

Overall this was a strong performance of this challenging work. The emotional thread was maintained from beginning to end thanks to choir, conductor and orchestra, but like an opera this work requires the musical and emotional engagement of every single person on the stage, which I sadly felt was not the case across the board.