Tuesday 2 April 2024

St Matthew Passion, Deutsche Oper, 29 March 2024

Evangelist – Kieran Carrel
Jesus – Padraic Rowan
Bass – Joel Allison
Tenor, False Witness – Kangyoon Shine Lee
Petrus, High Priest, Pontifex II – Youngkwang Oh
Pilatus, Judas, Pontifex I – Artur Garbas
Soprano, First Maid – Siobhan Stagg
Alto, False Witness, Second Maid – Annika Schlicht
Girl – Zoé Höchse
Friend – Selina Nüsse

Director – Benedikt von Peter
Revival directors – Eva-Maria Abelein, Matteo Marziano Graziano
Set designs – Natascha von Steiger
Costumes – Lene Schwind
Video – Bert Zander
Lighting – Roland Edrich
Dramaturgy – Dorothea Hartmann

Children’s and Youth Choirs of the Deutsche Oper (director: Christian Lindhorst)
Youth Choir of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden
Children’s Choir of the Aalto-Theatre, Essen (director: Patrik Jaskolka)
Chorus of the Deutsche Oper (director: Jeremy Bines)
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Alessandro De Marchi (conductor)

Images: Marcus Lieberenz

Had someone told me I should be attending performances of the two Bach Passions on consecutive evenings, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in Leipzig and Berlin, my first reaction might have been of scepticism, followed by reflection that this could not fail to be a Holy Week to remember. And indeed, it has not failed, neither in that nor in any other respect. However, had I then been told that I should find a staged performance in an opera house considerably more involving, not only thought-provoking, than a concert in the Thomaskirche, my reaction might have turned to something a little stronger than scepticism. Yet so it came to pass. I had little idea what to expect, though memories of Deborah Warner’s Messiah for the English National Opera (remember them?) continue to cast a baleful shadow. There might have been common ground, in that the Deutsche Oper’s production claimed to share a concern for ‘community’. Yet whereas, in London, that had been an unfortunate buzzword, here community involvement, not only from five choirs, amateur and professional, but also from a Berlin (and beyond) public that seemed to go beyond the typical, nonetheless broad opera audience, as well as both intelligently considering what community the work might construct and questioning what that might mean in an increasingly secular society. 

Benedikt von Peter’s staging, a co-production with Theater Basel, was first seen in Berlin last year. Here, in one of its first revival performances, it attracted a large audience both in the traditional auditorium and in additional seating onstage. Or perhaps that should be congregation, as we were addressed in the titles; we were given the music for two chorales to sing too: ‘Was mein Gott will,’ and ‘O Haupt von Blut und Wunden’. The production is in many ways, especially during the first part, quite straightforward. That works to its advantage once critical possibilities are voiced; they are grounded in something that has arisen, it seems, rather than having arisen from initial antagonism. Its spatial-conceptual framework would seem to have developed collaboratively from discussions between the director and conductor Alessandro De Marchi, doubtless dramaturge Dorothea Hartmann too. The two orchestras are on stage, either side of the space in which the production plays out. The conductor is at the front of the stalls, and the choirs are positioned around the auditorium in the shape of the Cross, an arrangement, we are told, modelled on an expansion of the separation of forces between altar and ‘swallow’s nest’ gallery. It certainly helps break boundaries between performers and audience, rendering us all in some sense congregants—whilst maintaining the possibility of different levels of engagement according to belief or inclination.


Members of the Children’s Choir of the Deutsche Oper carry the Cross onstage in the monumental opening chorus. I have heard it both more and less monumental. This was not, thank God, a dogmatic performance, De Marchi showing himself commendably pragmatic: all too much a rarity, alas, in today’s ‘authenticke’ world. If its tempo was fast, at least to my ears, it was not absurdly so; nor was there whining rigidity. Klemperer’s approach would, after all, neither have suited the occasion and forces, nor doubtless the conductor’s inclination, any more than something more objectionable. Once past a little discrepancy between orchestras – eminently forgivable in the circumstances – one felt drawn in to the greatest of all (music) dramas: visually, aurally, aesthetically, and yes observantly. Children act out the Passion, with overtones of Oberammergau, as it is musically enacted by the adults, the Evangelist in particular assuming the role of their instructor. Thus we see ‘disciples’ leave a little boy alone, tied and blindfolded—as indeed we hear that. But I have missed a stage: before that first chorus, a little girl has read to us from the Book of Isaiah. She appears to be simply reading a lesson, but becomes an increasingly critical voice, shouting to the deserting disciples, albeit to no avail. At the close of the first part, she frees Jesus: out of humanity, not necessarily faith. Indeed, elements of faith continue to trouble her, unable to reconcile her ethics with the economy of salvation. Having been freed, Jesus runs off to join the others, those who had captured him, rather than be comforted by his liberator: a difficult, hurtful act, rich in symbolism. After all, he must; he has no choice in any of this. She returns to the Bible, to read, learn, and think though not necessarily in the way her instructors intend.


In the second part, the girl (Zoé Höchse) returns, ever more ‘troublesome’ to the forces of organised religion. She cannot accept what is happening and is eventually banished by the Evangelist. (There is, I think, more than a dash of Greta Thunberg to her.) So too is her friend, and so too are some of the other children, convinced by the rebels’ arguments and understandably unwilling simply to do as they are told. Disturbingly, having remained separate following his trial, Christus briefly takes part in these expulsions too, but we can find ample Scriptural warrant for that, should we wish. By contrast, some of the ‘remaining’ children are elevated to sung as well as visual participation: a couple of them highly impressive as well as touching. As not only tragedy becomes clear but also its truer theological, sacrificial meaning – that of the Cross in whose form the entire drama unfolds – the children who cannot accept it invade the stage with their own, unresolved questions as placards. Epic theatre meets Christian ritual, and ultimately it us for us to decide (or not). Questioning a Bach Passion may seem odd, indeed unwelcome, to many, and surely it would be in a church. In an opera house, though, things are different. It might well not have worked, but it did. 

That was due in no small part, of course, to Da Marchi and his musical forces. The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper played with great style and sensitivity: not trying to be something they were not, but engaging in a recreation of Bach for today, without ever suggesting they might prefer to be playing Wagner. Indeed, in their obbligato roles, one sensed a moment of musical liberation: how wonderful, it seemed, that for once they could not only play this repertoire, but engage in music theatre of their own. Likewise the massed choral forces, used sparingly together, but voicing drama and reflection from around us, evoking a great basilica as much as Stockhausen. All involved in their direction deserve credit, pastorally as well as musically, this mirroring work and production in practice. One can question some of the musical choices, but that will always be the case in such music; one can still learn from the choices made. I might not choose to use lutes for the continuo, but I greatly appreciated their contribution.


Kieran Carrel proved an excellent Evangelist. It is at the best of times a considerable task, emotionally as well as vocally; with additional ‘dramatic’ duties, it became all the more so. Carrel’s understanding and communication of that understanding seemed to gain depth from those challenges, fully engaging with circumstances and their conceptual framework. The same might be said of Padraic Rowan’s Christus, darkly beautiful: strangely, properly remote yet also approachable. The other vocal soloists also all impressed. Battling a cold, Joel Allison nonetheless offered moving accounts of the bass arias; there were only a few occasions when one could tell. Tenor Kangyoon Shine Lee proved at least his match in the tenor arias, finely sculpted line and tone at the service of the text. Siobhan Stagg, Annika Schlicht complemented each other well as soprano and mezzo, offering performances both considered and, so it seemed, dramatically spontaneous. Youngkwang Oh and Artur Garbas impressed similarly in their parts. There really was no weak link, but rather in a true sense a musical community that both constructed and was constructed by Bach’s great Passion and its particular enactment.