St Matthew Passion
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I’d rather listen to Bach’s choral and orchestral setting of the last days of Jesus than watch it. But director Jonathan Miller stages the ‘St Matthew Passion’ in the round with subtlety and grace. Miller’s staging – or semi-staging really – brings out the yearning, often feckless human qualities of pivotal characters like Pilate and Judas in a way which amplifies but sometimes detracts from Bach’s upliftingly well-organised music. When it works, you see feeling ripple through the intensely gesturing chorus like wind through grass.
The chori spezzati sections, sung by opposing groups of disciples and non-believers, become an arresting human diptych. Later, focus sometimes ebbs and the lack of anything scripted to do when they’re not singing results in too much ‘rhubarb’.
The musical and theatrical star of Miller’s deliberately downbeat production is Andrew Staples, the sweet, fluent tenor who plays the narrating Evangelist with his hands in his pockets and his heart in his throat. He’s the only character we get to know: Hadleigh Adams’s granite-voiced Jesus is an impassive part to have to ‘play’ in this way, although he looks every inch the charismatic ’70s bearded cult leader.
One musical victory of the staging is how freely the soloists and instrumentalists can take the obbligato passages, where a soloist is partnered by one instrument from the orchestra. Here, the player gets up and follows his singer around, like a taverna violinist or – in many cases – a grief-stricken conscience.
The messy, improvised aesthetic – think ‘Godspell’ with proper music – can seem ragged when the soloists are patchy, but conductor and translator Paul Goodwin achieves order in-the-round – though it’s a shame that poor diction or the rafters of the Olivier swallow many of his words. Despite its flaws, this is a staging rich in feeling, subtlety and introspection.