Critical Mass
Bach’s St Matthew Passion

The idea of encountering a masterpiece can be exciting and confronting, and I count myself fortunate that my first encounter, with Bach’s St Matthew Passion involved a cassette sitting in a borrowed player. One click, and within four bars of music I was lost in its grave and passionate simplicity.

Passion in this context refers to its Latin derivation ‘Passio – passus’ (to suffer), and the story is that of the final hours in the life of Jesus. The genius of Bach is to tell it with such grace, power, and honesty that it absorbs you into the story, allowing you to be both passive observer and active participant, sharing the rapture and the despair of all those involved.

Of course, there can be obstructions to that engagement, and at the opening night of Opera Queensland‘s 2013 season I was consoled to think that the congregation at the Thomaskirche in Leipzig on Good Friday in 1729 probably included someone with a bad dose of nasal drip snorting to relieve himself, an exhausted worker occasionally snoring, and others who couldn’t help humming along to the familiar hymn tunes. The work is big and beautiful enough to integrate these sounds of normal life within its lyrical waves of polyphony.

Opera Queensland have combined forces with the Camerata of St John’s, a chamber string ensemble that normally works without a conductor, but here under the baton of Graham Abbott. The Opera Queensland Chamber Ensemble provide the choruses of disciples and witnesses, passersby and rioters, first century and 18th century followers and unbelievers, enhanced by the voices of students from Moreton Bay College and Brisbane Boys’ College.

Artistic Director Lindy Hulme has staged the performance just to a degree that still allows the music to provide the major dramatic shifts and turns. The singers move freely around the two small orchestras centre stage. Paul Whelan’s Jesus is elegant yet humble, Sara MacLiver (soprano), Tobias Cole (alto), Andrew Collis (Bass), and Robert Macfarlane (Tenor), the voices of individual devotion and sorrow. Each offer a different perspective, so that the range of voices become the rainbow of humanity.

Leif Aruhn-Solén (Evangelist) guides the trajectory of the events with a strong sense of compassion for all the flawed and fragile people who determine its conclusion. His voice is rich, light, and strong, effortlessly carrying the narrative in the best traditions of storytelling.

Paul Whelan and Leif Aruhn Solen, with members of Opera Qld Chamber Ensemble and Camerata of St John’s

For all the glory of the music, and the expert and passionate musicianship on stage, this production still left me disappointed. The staging gives the performers a physical freedom that is deeply moving, and allows some brief glimpses of small but significant actions, such as Judas throwing down the 30 pieces of silver at the feet of the Pharisees to be mimed with clarity. Yet restricting it to the stage area of the Concert Hall leaves the audience with a high, wide backdrop of bare, empty stalls, and negates any effect of the choruses providing alternating voices, which challenge and provoke each other and, consequently, the rest of the congregation/audience.

Abbott sets a pace in the opening bars so fast that the lines of music are lost in a cacophony. He returns to this pace at all of the ensemble sections, so that the powerful connections that have been made between singers and audience in the solo and chorale sections are interrupted. It is wonderful that the singers are able to perform without having to look at him, truly sharing their experience with each other and with the audience. For my taste, I suggest a slightly less frenetic pace in the orchestra would allow for a broader, deeper experience for all.

Feature image: Paul Whelan as Jesus and bass soloist Andrew Collis. Photo courtesy of Opera Queensland.

Second image: Paul Whelan and Leif Aruhn Solen, with members of Opera Queensland Chamber Ensemble and Camerata of St John’s.

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