Monday, July 30, 2007

Passion

The entire Glyndebourne experience is a marvel, from taking the special coach to the opera house through Lewes' narrow streets to the instant atmosphere conjured up by putting everyone in evening dress. This is before you've even got to the interval and its legendary suppers.

Were that all, you could certainly have an enjoyable evening, but when the music and singing are as powerful and moving as they were in Friday's performance of J.S. Bach's St Matthew Passion, it is a complete and enrapturing world. As a Glyndebourne virgin, I found my initiation exemplifying all that is good in classical music and modern theatre.

Bach's Passion, telling of the last days of Jesus' life - from Last Supper to crucifixion - was written as a work for chorus and orchestra, but what celebrated director Katie Mitchell (whose Iphigenia at Aulis was a hit at the National) has done is stage it as an opera. A travelling troupe of singers have taken their Passion to a town where many children have been killed - in a Dunblane-style massacre, we assume. Gradually, the grieving parents are drawn into the performance as the chorus and as actors in the story.

As the piece progresses, there is a melding of all its layers. The parents who need to express their grief are comforted by the actor playing Christ, but also by Christ himself as they get more deeply involved. Similarly, Christ is both their children who have been killed and the redemption for this, and he faces a chorus of parents who are also his tormentors and supporters in Judea. This is a symphonic approach which resolves itself into the beauty of the music's emotions.

It's a marvellously successful conceit which highlights the emotional resonances of the music, singing and story in a dramatic context, consequently (for me, at least) making them a lot more comprehensible and thus moving. A father would be brought out of the chorus to sing, only to be overcome by his grief and collapse in Christ's arms. When, at the close, the parents took Christ's hands to be blessed, it was overwhelming.

The singing was - to my neophyte ears - clear and almost unbearably tender at points, savage at others. Some of the best singing came from the chorus members who were singled out as characters in the Passion-story, since they sang with all the grief of their characters.

The staging - a plain classroom - added much to the sense of wonder and grief, including a striking, powerful use of the dead children's photos. As has been much remarked upon, there is an awful lot of pouring - salt, water - which is perhaps a little heavy-handedly symbolic, however one of the companions singing of how her heart has broken as she pours salt in a long stream from a glass is a wonderful visual interpretation.

Mitchell has managed not only to bring out the emotion inherent in the story and the music but also to amplify it with her idea, redoubling its strength as all the piece's facets mesh and mould into a more wondrous whole.

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