St John Passion review – immersive and communal Bach staging is deeply touching

Hackney Empire, London
Intensity and urgency underpin English Touring Opera’s reflections on faith, loss and mortality

James Conway presents Bach’s St John Passion as a communal reflection on faith, loss and mortality in his production for English Touring Opera, described as an “immersive semi-staging”, though in some ways it resists classification. Malleable and to some extent site-specific, it’s capable of ceaseless adaptation to the various venues – cathedrals as well as theatres – that will house it during its tour. It also very much forms part of ETO’s exemplary outreach tradition of working with local choirs as it progresses around the country.

At the Hackney Empire, it plays itself out on the colonnaded set for Mozart’s Così fan tutte, which accompanies it on tour, its gilded pillars gradually turning red as the moment of Christ’s death approaches. The Old Street Band, ETO’s period instrument orchestra, are on stage with some of the choirs, the remainder spilling into the theatre’s boxes. Seven soloists, singing from memory, meanwhile, move between stage and auditorium, each conveying a different response to the narrative. So, for instance, Thomas Elwin’s sad resignation contrasts with fellow tenor Richard Dowling’s anger and bass Bradley Travis’s anxious dismay. In accordance with his view of the Passion as a communal experience, Conway, controversially perhaps, divides the gospel text between all seven soloists, which results in some lines originally written for tenor and bass lying slightly awkwardly when transposed up an octave for soprano (Susanna Hurell), mezzo (Martha Jones) or countertenor (Tim Morgan).

The performances, however, are for the most part strong. There’s no interval, which heightens the intensity, and conductor Jonathan Peter Kenny, adopting swift tempi, propels the music forwards with considerable urgency. Instrumental obbligati are fluent and poised. The combined forces of the Collegium Musicum of London, Hackney Singers, Hackney Choral and the London Youth Boys’ Choir sang with great conviction and clarity. Among the arias, Elwin’s sorrowing Erwäge, Morgan’s beautifully introverted Es ist vollbracht! and bass-baritone Stephan Loges’s Mein teurer Heiland all stand out. Despite occasional idiosyncrasies, it’s deeply touching in its fervour and sincerity, and well worth catching during its tour.

Touring until 27 June.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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