KPAC blog: Saturday Afternoon At The Opera
12:42 pm
Tue November 20, 2012

A Holiday Special, J.S. Bach's 'St. Matthew Passion'

Last week, we played Wagner's Parsifal, which is often referred to as an Opera-Oratorio. This week, for the beginning of the holiday season, it's Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion; in its turn, the work is often called a Concertante Opera. If ever there was an oratorio that called out to be dramatized, the St. Matthew Passion is it. While living in New York, I met many scenographers who dreamed of the day they'd have a shot at the cosmic drama. Also termed, "The most monumental musical drama before the Ring," Bach's passion has it all. Its central story is one of the great cultural topics of the western world, the drama of the betrayal, judgment, crucifixion and internment of Christ. 

The St. Matthew Passion's challenge is the reverse of Wagner's Parsifal. Where Wagner tries to raise his drama to the spiritual level of sacred significance, Bach and his librettist, Picander, must try to humanize a sacred subject. Luckily for all music lovers, both composers succeed. Bach's great work was planned as a musical event to frame Good Friday; its two parts are to be presented before and after the sermon of Holy Week.

Framed by two huge choral pieces beginning with the lament, 'Ihr Tochter' (Come ye daughters, share my mourning) and the closing with a deep string accompaniment, 'Wie sitzen uns mit Tranen nieder'  (In tears of grief we leave thee, dear Lord), the chorus serves alternately as character, commentator and spiritual observer. At times the mob is calling for Barabbas and rejecting Jesus, then a penitent bridge from recitative to aria, and yet again a vocal responder to Jesus' speech - humanity personified. The tableaux presented moves from the famous scenes: betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, judgment before Pilate, denial by Peter as the cock crows and eventually the mocking, the crucifixion and finally the entombment.

Bach's handling of these complex representations is both archaic and sublime. He actually achieves the near impossible task of giving us that feeling of being in the midst of an event, which center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. It is simultaneously vast and intimate. This is done by the especially conversational recitatives where as many as six characters can be in dialogue, as in a play and then suddenly we are in a breathtaking aria. The variety of these transitions is intellectually dazzling and humanely moving. A perfect example is the lyrical and cosmic duet for two sopranos, in which following Jesus' death there is an eclipse and the world is plunged into both natural and metaphysical darkness:

So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen, Behold, my saviour now is taken,

Moon and Stars,Have for grief the light forsaken,

The cast of this production also reads like one of those stellar operatic nights in Berlin in the last third of the twentieth century: Peter Schreier (Evangelist), Dietrich Fischer Dieskau (Jesus), Gundula Janowitz and Christa Ludwig as first and second maids, Anton Diakov (Peter and Pilate) and Walter Berry with bass arias. Herbert von Karajan leads the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.

Whether a fan of opera or oratorio, hear the work that straddles both worlds, J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, this Saturday at noon on KPAC and KTXI.