Classical music – like every art – has its fashions. And when, back in 1993, Jonathan Miller took the unorthodox step of staging Bach’s St Matthew Passion, he started a trend. Sober and spiritual it may have been, but his production in Holy Trinity Sloane Square (revived earlier this year at the National Theatre) placed a sacred work within the secular grasp of the theatre. Where Miller led Deborah Warner’s St John Passion followed, as well of course as Katie Mitchell’s controversial post-massacre St Matthew for Glyndebourne. Last week, in the subterranean bunker that is the University of Westminster’s Ambika P3 space, Bach’s oratorio donned its latest costume.
Offering practical solutions while Michael Gove has floundered with postponements and platitudes, Suzi Digby is a serious force for good within Britain’s music education system. Her Voices Foundation has been working in and with schools since 1993, and with this St Matthew Passion she launches a new project – Vocal Futures. Focused once again on young people, it places the Passion at the core of an ongoing series of workshops and practical encounters with classical music.
Most of this involvement takes place offstage however, leaving the production a purely professional arena. It’s a wise choice, and one that for the most part avoids the mawkish sleeve-tug of sentimentality that can so easily blight Bach’s purity. For neither of the Passions is strictly a dramatization of the crucifixion story; characters are fluid and often non-specific, the mood is meditative, cumulative, rather than narrative. It the great strength of Patrick Kinmonth’s production that he makes little attempt to “fix” this.
Costumes are contemporary and neutral, framing action that favours an abstract sort of symbolism. Arms and eyes are raised aloft, chalices are passed from hand to hand, collective rituals of washing and mourning are played out with a tasteful lack of emphasis. Amongst the silent physical presence of a troupe of young actors, the soloists carve out more personal encounters with the text.
The alto solos become a timeshare affair, split – occasionally mid-aria – between Robin Blaze and Catherine Hopper. The logic here, exploiting the very different vocal colours for narrative development, perhaps works better in theory than practice, but the dramatic sympathy between the two singers was touching, only exceeded by the two Evangelists. While purists will doubtless object, the duality here worked well, with Joshua Ellicott and Samuel Boden each bringing a different emotional vantage point to the tragedy they recount. It was Boden however whose directness of delivery really sharpened the text (a new and occasionally unfelicitous translation from Jessica d’Este and Patrick Kinmonth) into the piercing blade it can and should be.
Willard White is opera’s Morgan Freeman, and his Christus was predictably rich in gravitas. It was however disappointing vocally, and it was White together with bass soloist Stephan Loges who suffered most in the baggier passages of Digby’s musical direction. By contrast, the chorus of young professionals – the two choirs split across both sides of the stage – propelled the action and energy forwards every time they sang. While Miller’s choruses sing at each other, to the exclusion of the watching audience, here the seated chorus and silent actors offered a much more involving and flexible alternative. Aided by a surprisingly well-balanced acoustic the singers produced a beautiful ensemble tone, flexible enough to encompass both the lightning and thunder and the tragic fragility of the post-crucifixion chorale into a single musical trajectory.
The power of Bach’s Passions is surely in what they leave unspoken, unpictured. The uncluttered symbolism of Kinmonth’s direction represents an allusive negotiation between action and meditation – a semi-staging in the best and most uncompromising sense. Add to this some really excellent music, and Digby and this inaugural Vocal Future projects have made quite the start and quite the statement. I only hope someone in government is listening.