They come from the farthest corners of an empty stage. Ordinary people, anonymous people in everyday clothes. There is some urgency. The music underscores it - a restless, undulating string texture spiked with dissonant suspensions in the woodwind. They are shadowy figures, their faces indistinct. As yet they walk in darkness. And then comes this overwhelming cry: "Lord! Lord and Master; Every tongue shall offer praises to Thy name. Show by Thy Cross and Passion that Thou art God's redeeming Son." And with it, dozens of naked light-bulbs descending from above - as if the sky is falling and with it the stars. One by one, the figures in this universal chorus are illuminated. We see them, albeit fleetingly, as individuals. We recognise them as like us. And then the light falls on one who is not singing. His name is John, and this is his story. He has come to bear witness.
Deborah Warner's quietly devastating staging of Bach's St John Passion does not seek to dramatise his story (Bach does that perfectly well himself) but rather to make flesh of his words. To place them in an emotional context that we, as fellow human beings, can recognise, relate to, see, feel, almost touch. It's all about levels of immediacy. We, too, are witnesses, participants in this drama. It is a religious experience in the broadest sense. We cannot walk away from it. We are all involved.
And so the houselights are raised and we are invited to join in the singing of the three chorales which act as the emotional climacterics of the evening - moments of catharsis for us all. There is little or no sense of divide between us and the events unfolding before us. Volunteer singers from amateur choirs fill the stage-side boxes, the woodwind obbligati and continuo players from the orchestra are raised virtually to the level of the stage. We feel like we are among them, and they us.
Mark Padmore's Evangelist (St John) is certainly among us. And perhaps the most powerful, and moving, feature of the production is the way in which Warner handles his involvement in the unfolding story - the story of the friend he loses - and the extent to which he can remain objective about it. He cannot, of course. This is his friend, his story as much as it is ours, and the moments where it is no longer possible for him to remain merely an observer, the moments where Warner allows him physical intervention, are simply overwhelming. It is he who takes Peter in his arms at the moment of denial; it is he who pays off the soldiers from his own pocket when they cast lots for his friend's coat. And it is he who must stand helplessly by and watch his friend die. Padmore is simply wonderful - a voice of disarming purity and directness, a voice that looks you straight in the eye. His intonation is almost painfully true and when he seizes a key melisma such as that which enfolds the words "and wept bitterly" at the moment of Peter's denial, it is as if all the pity of the world were contained within it.
Bach, of course, shows us the way. Such moments of vocal extravagance are rare and telling and Warner does not undermine the overriding austerity. The nearest to sensation we get in this staging is a video projection of a trickle of blood down Jesus's face (the striking, Christ-like Paul Whelan) or the sight of his body bared for scourging. But the images, like the music, have a poignant serenity.
Finally, as the alto soloist - the excellent Catherine Wyn-Rogers - sings of fulfilment and "new hope", and Jesus simply walks away - his work done, his sacrifice made - a young woman brings the Evangelist a lamb, and we too walk away, leaving behind us a stage littered with floral tributes.
We ourselves might have laid them.
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