It’s a truism to say that the St Matthew Passion is the opera Bach never wrote. But it’s still a work designed for a liturgical setting (‘site-specific’, if you like), with a strong community aspect to it.
So how could English Touring Opera translate that into today’s conditions, using the dramatic gifts of their stage-trained singers? Their concept is so brilliant that you wonder why everyone else doesn’t do the same – perhaps in future others will take some leaves from their book, at least.
They’re touring it with The Old Street Band – using properly authentic Baroque instruments and playing styles – but collaborating with local groups in each venue they visit. In Manchester they enlisted Chetham’s Chamber Choir and choristers from Manchester Cathedral, for this performance at the Stoller Hall in Chetham’s School of Music.
That’s the community aspect built in, for a start. (Manchester used to have a fine tradition of this sort, with collaborative performances of oratorio every year at Christmas and Easter in the Free Trade Hall, separate from the Hallé or other concert series, until relatively late in the 19th century). It also works on a national level, as the chorales are sung in English (the rest’s in the original German), in translations by a galaxy of names including James Conway, Roger Wright, Rowan Williams, Alan Rusbridger and Lucy Winkett).
But there’s more to it than that. The work is effectively semi-staged, with some soloists allocated clearly recognizable roles (Judas, Peter, Pilate and so on), others sharing roles from the original named ones (the Evangelist, and Jesus – who is, quite daringly but I think completely justifiedly, sung by bass and female alto, and sometimes the two in unison), and all moving around the stage (and to some extent the auditorium) to lend theatricality to the story. At times, band members join in the movement, too, and all watch everything that happens – there’s a marvellous sense of us all being in this together, celebrating and re-enacting the Gospel story.
I found it incredibly moving. Not just because of the immediacy of the realization – conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny gets through most movements at quite a lick, and the recitative is quick-fire, as in present-day baroque opera – but because of the sense of the timelessness of J S Bach’s testimony of faith. ‘He being dead yet speaketh’ – what a legacy to have created.
There are what some would consider compromises in the integrity of the performance – re-allocation of voice pitches, the children singing their chorales as soprano line only – but you can’t help thinking Bach would have adapted his ends to his means today if he were here. The soloists, including Katie Bray, Richard Dowling, Susanna Fairbairn, John-Colin Gyeantey, Frederick Long, Andrew Slater, Benjamin Williamson, were magnificent.