Bach’s St. Matthew Transfigured By Sellars, Berlin PO

Sir Simon Rattle conducted Peter Sellars's staging of 'St. Matthew Passion' at the Park Avenue Armony.  (Photos by Richard Termine / Lincoln Center)
The 2014 White Light Festival opened with the Peter Sellars-Berlin Philharmonic realization of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion.’
(Photos by Richard Termine at the Park Avenue Armory, courtesy of Lincoln Center)
By Susan Elliott

NEW YORK — Peter Sellars likes to call Bach’s St. Matthew Passion “vividly experiential… a musical picture of the struggle of the soul.” This Mount Everest of the choral repertoire, he insists, is to be admired not from the outside, at arm’s length, but from the inside.  “It is deeply personal,” he says.

Rattle conducted the Berlin Philharmonic and Radio Choir.
Rattle on the project: “The single most important thing we ever did.”

No kidding.

His 2010 vision of the sacred work, which arrived here on Oct. 7 at the Park Avenue Armory, is not a staging in the traditional sense, but more a physical realization of Bach’s music through the movements and gestures of its singers and instrumentalists.

There are no costumes or props. Staged in the round, with the audience surrounding its two choruses, two orchestras, continuo, and soloists, this telling of the events leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ draws us into its dark vortex of betrayal, human torture, remorse. It’s as if the collective images at the center (mostly) of the “round” were magnets, sucking us into their plight. At its conclusion, when all is frozen on stage and the lights fade slowly to black, we are exhausted yet somehow enriched. No wonder the project’s co-conspirator, Berlin Philharmonic music director Simon Rattle, has said of its first staging at the Philharmonie that it’s “the single most important thing we ever did here.”

The piece has had several performances in Europe, most recently at the BBC Proms, but this marked its U.S. premiere, a fitting opening to Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival (Oct. 7-Nov. 11), which aims to emphasize music’s spiritual side. The in-the-round arrangement, a re-creation of the Philharmonie’s design, was specially built for this mere two-day run in the armory’s 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall. It’s suitably monumental, but the amount of time (and money) that went into this 1,800-seat erector set seems hard to justify relative to its short run.  Perhaps that helps explain the $350 ticket price; so quickly did Sellars’ ritualization (his word) of the St. Matthew Passion sell out that even dress-rehearsal tickets ($125) became the manna of scalpers.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens was one of the exceptional soloists.
Eric Owens, deeply melancholic in ‘My heart, make yourself clean.’

On the other hand, this was an A-1 undertaking; indeed, it’s hard to imagine the undertaking of so steep a trek by any forces other than the originating Berlin Philharmonic and Radio Choir and the sterling array of soloists, most of whom were in the original staging and on the subsequent recording.

[The orchestra recently released both the St. John Passion and the St. Matthew Passion in DVD and Blu-Ray along with the four Schumann Symphonies on its new in-house label in a wide, linen-bound, hardcover format with lavish supportive text and illustration. Distribution is through and Arkiv Music.]

The stage is set with a couple of square white boxes and a rectangular one, which serves variously as a table for the Last Supper, Christ’s grave, or whatever else might be called for. The orchestra is divided into two groups of about 20 each, facing one another, with the continuo to one side of the circle, adjacent to the conductor. The two choruses are also divided; one group actually sits in the audience. English supertitles are suspended from screens high in the rafters of the armory. Everyone wears simple black.

And everyone, including the musicians, is part of the act. The solo instruments variously move from their seats in the ensemble to center stage and elsewhere to interact with the solo vocalists. At one point, tenor Topi Lehtipuu argues “Geduld! Geduld!” (Patience! Patience!) to the scratchy nattering of the viola da gamba (Ulrich Wolff), the two facing one another alone at center stage. At another the tenor has a “conversation” with two oboes, high on a platform in the audience, both players having memorized their parts so as to “converse” more effectively, facial expressions and all. This is all in keeping with Sellars’ goal of realizing Bach’s musical images, of making the piece experiential. “It’s not a proscenium work,” he kept decrying in one interview. “It’s a conversation.”

The two choruses (also without music) interacted with each other, the musicians, the soloists, the audience. They would occasionally pour off their rows of sit-upon cubes on the sidelines to gather around one or another of the soloists, effectively portraying an angry mob (“Laß ihn kreuzigen!” — Crucify Him!) or a group of soulful mourners (“Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” — We sit down in tears).

British tenor Mark Padmore sang the role of the Evangelist.
Mark Padmore as the Evangelist, part narrator, part Jesus avatar.

Musical values could hardly have been bettered; equally important, though, was the sense of commitment to the text among the assembled forces — not a bored gaze to be spotted anywhere. Sellars is a brilliant, if quirky director, but he is also a brilliant salesman. You can just hear him explaining to the chorus that they needed to memorize their parts so that they could internalize Bach’s music and thus embody it in their stage movements.  Which they did.

As the Evangelist, British tenor Mark Padmore, seated alone onstage as the audience arrived, his body bent as if already in mourning, was a tragic figure in an exhausting role. Part narrator, part Jesus avatar, his long, thin body crawled about the stage, now curled up in pain, now sprawled on the floor, all the while pulling notes out of the stratosphere or maintaining the lyrical line, his pitch consistently spot-on. Magdalena Kožená, a pale-skinned, wide-eyed redhead, moved in and out of utter despair as a Mary Magdalene figure — Bach did not actually specify “roles” for the respective solo voices — her dark mezzo emerging as if from deep pools of amber.

Christian Gerhaher sang Jesus, usually from a perch high in the stands, his sturdy baritone easily conveying a sense of know-all, see-all. Among the most touching moments was clear-voiced soprano Camilla Tilling’s duet on “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” (Out of love my Savior is willing to die) with flutist Emmanuel Pahud, their voices exquisitely blended and balanced; Eric Owens’ aching “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (My heart, make yourself clean) was so deeply melancholic as to move even the most hardened atheist.

Overseeing it all, leaping across the stage from one orchestra or chorus to another, mouth wide open as if singing along, was Rattle (Mr. Magdalena Kožená), setting a pace as sensitive to the text as could be imagined. Experiential? The images, both musical and theatrical, remain burned in the brain.

Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of