Brockes Passion, Britten Theatre Royal College of Music, Londo

Just too prim for a Passion
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The Independent Culture

With the African Mysteries back at Queen's Theatre, and Deborah Warner's St John Passion returning to London's Coliseum this week, staged Passion stories are two-a- penny. Handel's Brockes Passion, his early treatment (1716/17) of a German text also set by Keiser, Telemann and others, and later pilfered for his Chandos Anthems and English Oratorios, had its world-premiere staging this week by Denys Darlow's doughty London Handel Festival, celebrating its 25th season.

As poor sister among Passions, is it as good as Bach? No, though a handful of scenes (Peter's denials, "To Golgotha", the Mary-Jesus duet, a lovely late soprano aria) run him close. With director Tom Hawkes and designer Peter Rice mounting it with singers from the RCM's Benjamin Britten Opera School, and the octogenarian Darlow conducting the London Handel Orchestra in his own edition and translation, the auspices looked good.

Hawkes, a lucid if safe director, can make any amateur chorus look near-professional. Rice's visual solutions have cured countless vexing stages (Castleward, Holland Park, Northampton's Derngate). Here, post-Birtwistle, I feared for both: this Brockes Passion upstaged Raphael and Holman Hunt (even Joseph looked like a Burne-Jones Saviour). Had James Harrison's Jesus, reasonably sung, looked demure a second longer, I was ready to throw something: he looks like Pasolini's Christ, yet what was needed was fewer osculatory benedictions, more fireworks – flying moneychangers' tables, a bit more Grünewald – although the Crucifixion, punctuated by a late bonus, Martene Grimson's excellent Mary, De La Tour crossed with Van Eyck, was tidily done.

The youthful choruses were punchy and vitriolic, always vocally, if not visually, top-notch. Launched with a few sloppy notes, Denys Darlow's orch-estra (especially good bass-oons) needed more urgent pumping. Some "Daughter of Zion" commentaries (Julianne de Villiers, a cutting mezzo, excepted) alternated between frightful and comic, unhelped by costumes redolent of Robin Hood with three Maid Marions: one expected Alan Rickman's Sheriff to swing in at any moment. Luckily, the Little John, Welsh bass Sion Goronwy – a dead ringer for Osmin, a natural Jokanaan and a potential Boris – saved the first half as a magnificent Caiaphas (and later Centurion).

So did Andrew Kennedy, a glorious young lyric-dramatic tenor if ever there was one, who served up a sizzling, emotionally direct St Peter. Nicholas Watts (Simon of Cyrene) seemed another, till rocky coloratura consigned him to oblivion. Clint van der Linde (last year's Flavio) is chasing Blaze and Scholl.

Robert Murray's Evangelist, delivered largely from a pulpit (unlike the peripatetic Mark Padmore in Deborah Warner's gripping ENO staging) delivered ably despite a few sagging early gaps between numbers. The whole evening – most obviously the Mocking and Crucifixion, where scarlet for Christ's robe and colour-co-ordinated apricots (Mary and Joseph) underlined the "traditional" treatment – was done as a lucid series of shifting tableaux.

Cast discipline was excellent: a pity that words like "worthy", "prim", and "unchallenging" also rush to mind.

At the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London (020-8244 3561), tonight at 7pm. ENO's revival of Bach's 'St John Passion' is at London's Coliseum (020-7632 8300), tonight until 30 March, start times do vary

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