LOS ANGELES — Since Mendelssohn’s historic 1829 performance of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in drastically edited form, length has naturally entered into subsequent considerations of mounting the work. Schumann, who attended that Berlin performance, saw a version that cut about a third of Bach’s nearly four-hour score.
These days, uncut performances of this cornerstone of the choral repertoire are expected. On March 12 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Opera Orchestra and Chorus — conducted by James Conlon and Grant Gershon, respectively — presented Bach’s score complete, but with a major, and quite literal, twist. This version featured American choreographer John Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet production.
Since Bach’s vast canvas already comes with a lot of moving parts, including here the LA Children’s Chorus and six soloists, it’s a big audience ask, even for people seeing it a second or third time (the ballet production premiered in 1981 at the Hamburg State Opera). And what is a listener’s experience like sitting masked, as per pandemic rules? It certainly didn’t make the experience any easier, nor did a suddenly out-of-order men’s room at intermission, before the 140-minute second-half, help.
But maybe that’s the point. Neumeier’s extraordinary dancers embody Bach’s all-too-human Passion, in which the audience is invited to physically and spiritually experience the drama of struggle and redemption. I felt this most acutely as the dancers, dressed in white, occasionally surrounded us in the cavernous hall, some even taking seats, as the St. Matthew Passion narrative unfolded.
As a ballet, the St. Matthew Passion offers effective moments, as well as passages in which the stage feels merely cluttered and hyperactive. Dancers gyrate, contort, bend, make awkward lifts, and endure spasms and twists of head and neck. There’s just so much one can take in. Indeed, some audience members looked away during Part Two’s Scourging of Jesus. For the crucifixion, dancers assembled black benches into a kind of Cross — like large Legos employed for torture — with dancer Marc Jubete, as Jesus, hanging with arms stretched and bent backwards, legs in a plié, feet suspended in the air.
The vocal soloists were positioned in the pit, below the front of the stage; the LA Opera Chorus was all the way upstage behind a black scrim. The Hamburg dancers filled stage front and back for the entire night. That said, the choral singing was clear and sonorous, often with elegantly terraced dynamics, as in “Erkenne mich, mein Hüter” (“Receive me, my Redeemer”).
Tenor Joshua Blue made a commanding Evangelist, with bass-baritone Michael Sumuel a poignant Jesus. Soprano Tamara Wilson and tenor Ben Bliss sang warmly. And though her low range occasionally struggled for clarity and projection from inside the pit, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham brought affecting intimacy to “Erbarme dich” (“Have mercy”).
Bach’s beautiful final aria (modeled on a Baroque dance, the gigue), “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” (“Make yourself pure, my heart”), could have used more defined rhythmic lilt from bass Kristinn Sigmundsson, who otherwise sang with generally firm tone throughout.
Conlon made sure the St. Matthew Passion never became merely a cerebral or polemical religious work. His pacing was steady, giving the dramatic and meditative parts breathing room. The orchestra played well, with Malachai Bandy contributing warmly on viola da gamba.
After watching him conduct, a contemporary of Bach reportedly said the composer was “full of rhythm in every part of his body.” That’s the effect of this production — one big rhythmic musical and physical body trying to express the ineffable. Indeed, Neumeier’s extra-challenging ballet version of the St. Matthew Passion kept our eyes moving and our spirits engaged in a kind of eternal-life affirmation.
Incidentally, Neumeier’s company appeared March 11 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Bernstein Dances (final performance on March 19), a joyous, colorful (costumes by Armani, no less) homage to Leonard Bernstein’s theater and concert music, which began and ended with his earthy and exuberant Candide Overture.