St Matthew Passion, Royal National Theatre

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The Independent Culture

Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ may not be an opera, but its operatic power can lead people to treat it as one.

A few years ago Glyndebourne hosted a production in which the soloists were travelling players addressing grieving parents at a school whose pupils had been victims of a massacre: it didn’t work. Jonathan Miller’s approach, which he first road-tested 18 years ago, is not operatic, but it is, he insists, ‘fully staged’ despite the fact that his performers wear casual clothes, and make do with no props beyond a few wooden chairs.

He had initially wanted to do this new version in the Round House, but it ended up at the Olivier which inevitably threw up problems. The carpets, plush seating, and very high ceiling eat up the sound rather than projecting it, so the soloists are having to be miked. Miller uses the circular stage as the basis for an in-the-round presentation with the audience surrounding the action (if necessarily at some distance). He and his conductor Paul Goodwin were determined to break free of the usual format in which singers and orchestra face the audience in serried ranks; their chorus surges back and forth across the stage, while the solo singers pair off with the instrumental soloists with whom they perform their duets. Urgency and immediacy are their watchwords.

And – much aided by the translation which Goodwin has compiled through years of working with singers - this they certainly deliver, from the moment the first great orchestral and choral statement wells up from the bowels of the earth. Since the band is the youthful Southbank Sinfonia and the chorus comes from the Guildhall, the energy is electrifying, with the instrumental solos – pre-eminently on violin, cello, flute, and oboe – being every bit as dramatic as the arias they accompany. This is emphatically not a concert: it’s life and death in the raw.

Hadleigh Adams’s Jesus is a resonantly irascible figure, and Andrew Staples’s Evangelist makes a wonderfully persuasive narrator, while the beauty of his fellow-tenor Benjamin Hullett’s singing takes the breath away; mezzo-soprano Sally Bruce-Payne and bass Mark Stone lend ringing gravitas to the closing stages of the drama. Miller and Goodwin generate massive momentum through the application of that time-honoured mantra: less is more.