St. Matthew Passion
nytheatre.com review by Russell M. Kaplan
April 18, 2009
It's a sad fact that most of the public couldn't care less about classical music. As the world grows more impatient and music becomes even more disposable, classical advocates are working tirelessly to find a connection to modern audiences. Often their strategy is to create a more casual concert environment, typically with mixed results. But until recently I'd never seen a classic work presented with literally NONE of the usual stuffy conceits. Jonathan Miller's fearlessly simple "plainclothes" production of J.S. Bach's chorale St. Matthew Passion is just that—the singers and orchestra wear their street clothes, sing in English, and mostly perform facing each other in a big circle. With only light staging and barely any design elements, it hardly even qualifies as a production...and yet the visceral impact of Bach's final Passion is felt far more deeply than I can possibly imagine it would be in a more fully produced scenario.
It's an unusual kind of satisfaction that comes from watching what appears to be a glorified rehearsal. But it's the casual vibe that makes this production special, making you feel as though you've stumbled onto a secret meeting of singers and musicians who are playing just for the joy of it. The soloists and "double-choir," relieved of the need to sing to the back wall, are allowed to really relate to each other, and the communication we witness between them adds a feeling of intimacy that simply could not exist in a more formal setting. The musicians, many of whom play period instruments, are in on the action as well, and are often featured as prominently in the staging as the singers. Some of the duets between the players and soloists are simply mesmerizing.
It's especially impressive how immediate the ensemble can make this material feel, since lyrically it's unabashedly traditional and religious. The libretto is little more than a musical setting of excerpts from the Gospel of Matthew, with few shades of characterization and no intention of digging deeper than the traditional depictions of its biblical characters. Fortunately the soloists are more or less at liberty to be themselves within the context of their roles, and we can relate to them simply as singers exploring the nuances of the music. Fine performances abound, especially tenor Rufus Müller as the Evangelist (narrator) and the astoundingly soulful countertenor Daniel Taylor. Curtis Streetman, with his hulking teddy-bear presence and powerful baritone, makes an unlikely Jesus—though it's certainly not his fault that Bach made such an odd compositional choice for the character. Regardless of all this, he sings it beautifully.
It should be noted that St. Matthew was written simply as a choral piece, not an opera. And the minimalist approach to this production does hold me back from calling it a "theatre piece." But there's something undeniably theatrical about watching these fine performers—who look just like you and me—really digging into this timeless music, and having a ball doing it. It gives you faith that 500 years from now, choirs great and small will still be doing this.