Jesus Christ, opera star

Concerts of Bach's St John Passion are familiar Eastertide events. Now the crucifixion is being staged at English National Opera. Can the director Deborah Warner retain its sacred heart?
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The Independent Culture

Each Good Friday for the past five years (and the same this Easter - the 250th anniversary of JS Bach's death) Stephen Layton has conducted Bach's St John Passion at St John's, Smith Square in London, with a top-notch Evangelist, such as Ian Bostridge or Mark Padmore.

"And every time near the close of the piece, around 4pm, the sun has come out; it's been dark most of the afternoon - a normal, broody Good Friday - and then suddenly, pow!" he says. "I know that because it blazes straight into my eyes. And at that point I always have to conduct with them shut. It's pretty uncanny - five years on the trot. I have this jinxed feeling that the year that it doesn't happen, our performance will somehow have missed the mark."

Last year must have been a scorcher, for Layton's St John Passion, with his own choir Polyphony, wowed audience and critics alike. Success bred opportunity. Nicholas Payne, general director of English National Opera, has now invited Layton to conduct a staging of the St John Passion for ENO, sung in English. Padmore, well versed in Baroque opera, sings the Evangelist. Deborah Warner, who produced a run of triumphs for Opera North in the Nicholas Payne-Paul Daniel era (and more recently staged the Royal Opera's Turn of the Screw with Bostridge and Daniel's wife, Joan Rodgers), makes her ENO début.

The Coliseum isn't exactly Oberammergau, though there is a precedent : Jonathan Miller made an attractive semi-staging of St Matthew Passion in a Knightsbridge church a few years ago. And ENO itself has amazing plans to stage Verdi's Requiem next December. But what can we expect? Jesus Christ Superstar? Godspell? The doubting Christ of Dennis Potter's Son of Man? Pasolini's severe Marxist icon?

Dropping only a few clues, Warner plays characteristically coy. "With Shakespeare, you always feel you've got an incredible collaborator and mentor in the playwright himself; and you get the same with Bach. You throw just a small idea into the melting pot, and it bubbles up and generates a thousand others.

"We've got video and slide projection as one of our tools; and we've raised the pit, advancing beyond the proscenium so as to bridge the divide, positioning part of the chorus further forward.

"Compared to me," she adds, "the singers knew it all backwards. So I felt pretty nervous at the start. But what struck me full in the face was Bach's revelation of character. The Evangelist - he's an extraordinary guy, this man who loses his friend. By the end, he's so cut up and churned up, he's scarcely able to sing. There's this marvellous moment in the music where Christ drops his head and dies, and the alto aria follows. By the following recitative you sense that the Evangelist - ie St John - can scarcely utter at all."

Layton agrees. "The Evangelist, he's just about wrecked by the end. He's joined on stage by all these people bringing flowers to put on Jesus's grave, and a young child brings him a lamb - a highly potent Passover symbol. There they are, sitting on stage singing what is, in effect, a funeral chorus, telling Jesus to 'Sleep well, and rest in God, who makes an end of all our weeping.' That 'our' - it's inclusive. I've never before had the idea of this last chorus as being an involvement of all humanity. Everybody gets drawn in. It's something Deborah's staging really brings out.

"There's this dark feel to the St John right from the very outset, a kind of brooding, a turmoil - almost like a Dance of Death. There's this undulating texture in the violins, and chromatic spikes in the woodwind, a bass line that seems to keep hammering in nails, and an alternating of consonance and dissonance. It's incredibly unsettling, till the tension is released by the first choir entry. I don't think there's any other Bach quite like it.

"It's a better plot than any opera. I mean, they don't crucify many people in opera. Take a moment like where Pilate says, 'What is truth?' - 'Was ist Wahrheit?' In an ordinary performance you play a chord in the continuo, and the moment passes. But actually there are all sorts of other things you can do, like not playing a chord. When Pilate [ENO company principal David Kempster] asks, 'What is truth?', there's not a murmur - and the whole bloody world shakes. OK, it's being slightly naughty; purists might not go along with it, but I think with a staging it can be justified.

"Pilate's an extraordinary, tortured figure too. I think Bach's Lutheran principles come over really strongly, perhaps never more so than in the music where the Evangelist says that 'from that moment onwards he sought to release Jesus.' We've had all flat keys throughout the recit, and all of a sudden Bach twists it into E major, C sharp major - it gives it this wonderful feeling; you sense that all the time that Bach is hammering home the point, 'This guy Pilate, he didn't want to do it.' The staging brings that out all the more clearly.

"The chorus in the Passion has a crucial role, whether as Romans, or as the people getting on their high horse, chanting: 'We have a sacred law', or yelling out sort of blitzkrieg 'Kreuzige!'s - 'Crucify him!' It's quite a change for them, coming from Bizet or Verdi the night before and having to sing music that isn't operatic writing at all - it's more a case of instrumental music that the voice has to sing.

"It's definitely more dramatic than the St Matthew Passion. That has orchestral accompaniment to the recitatives, whereas the St John has much starker continuo; and while the St Matthew has more tender love and contemplation - sections like 'Erbarme dich' for instance - there's never quite the brutal venom and crowd baying for blood that there is in the St John. And the alto aria ('Es ist vollbracht' - 'It is accomplished') following Christ's death is an extraordinary moment, where the music seems almost to contradict the words. It says it's fulfilled, yet the music is about as unfulfilled as it could be. It's stuffed full of black notes - you look at an illuminated manuscript of this aria and you think, 'Why did he do that?' It's not till the next bit, when she sings 'The Lion of Judah', that the triumph comes in."

And there's Jesus himself, sung by Paul Whelan, who made a pretty Christ-like figure of Maxwell Davies's equally doomed Doctor of Myddfai for WNO a couple of years ago. "Christ is an incredibly tricky figure to play on stage," Layton says. "You have to avoid the statuesque, yet there's a particular gravitas to the role in the German way of singing which I think it's difficult for English singers to capture. Paul looks and sounds superb."

Certainly, Holman Hunt would have given his right arm for a Whelan, though Deborah Warner was originally less convinced: "Paul looked so much like a traditional image of Christ that when I first met him, I wanted to cut all his long hair off. But as things went on it became curiously exciting that he does have this in-built Christ-like image. He's quite an angry, fighting Christ.

"One of the satisfying things is that Paul and the others will be able to go back to singing the piece as oratorio with this experience behind them," she says. "Mark, I think, is one of the truly great Evangelists; yet when he does this piece in future, it will never be quite the same. He will actually have been at the base of the Cross himself."

The ENO production of Bach's 'St John Passion' opens at the London Coliseum (020-7632 8300 or www.eno.org) tonight at 8pm and runs until Easter Saturday

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