The Passion, re-telling of the suffering of Christ, has had monumental human implications throughout modern history. Christians and non-Christians alike consider JS Bach’s St Matthew Passion the greatest work of its kind ever written, attaining truly sublime musical expressiveness. A moving combination of joy and grief, this powerful music drama shifts between chronicle and contemporary commentary, guided by the evangelist St Matthew.
Opera Queensland and Camerata of St John’s, led by Brendan Joyce, will join forces under the musical leadership of renowned conductor Graham Abbott. In a staging first created by Artistic Director Lindy Hume for Perth International Arts Festival, international and Australian soloists, chorus and musicians form an onstage community to play out scenes from this heartbreaking story of betrayal and forbearance.
“Lindy Hume’s staged performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion is a revelation: it beautifully illuminates this immortal music, taking audiences to a deeper understanding of one of the greatest achievements in Western art.” Margaret Throsby, ABC Classic FM
The narrative of the St Matthew Passion, taken from chapters 26 and 27 of St Matthew’s Gospel, is sung in a highly expressive recitative by a tenor Evangelist. This is summarised below in plain text. The part of Christ and the remaining ‘characters’ in the story are distributed among a range of voices, while the Chorus takes on the role of the crowd or congregation.
Responses to the Evangelist’s narrative, summarised below in italics, are sung by the soloists and Chorus. These interweave with the Evangelist’s part, balancing the urgency of the story and providing an element of personal inward meditation.
A community gather to tell the story of the Passion, and to grieve.
Jesus forewarns of his death and betrayal. He prepares to take the Passover meal with his followers. Judas' loyalty is bought for 30 pieces of silver.
A man weeps tears of remorse and a woman expresses horror at the betrayal of a loved one. The congregation accept the blame for Jesus’ suffering.
Jesus shares with the disciples his knowledge of their weakness. He prophesies that Peter will betray him that very night. Jesus asks the disciples to stay awake and watch while he prays.
The congregation expresses gratitude and determination to be steadfast in faith and loyalty. They sympathise with the feelings of Jesus on this loneliest of nights.
Twice Jesus finds his disciples asleep and chastises them for their lack of care. Returning to prayer, Jesus drinks from the cup of mortal sin, accepting his fate.
The congregation celebrates the profound effect of His action on our lives.
Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss and the brutal arrest takes place. His disciples abandon him.
The congregation explode at the betrayal of Jesus. They lament our shared complicity in Christ’s downfall.
The bewildered congregation lament the loss of Jesus.
Jesus is taken to Caiaphas’ palace. He remains silent as two false witnesses are found to accuse him.
The congregation begs to be protected from the lies of false testimonies.
A young man is inspired by the Jesus example of forbearance.
The High Priest accuses Jesus of blasphemy. The people denounce Jesus, calling for his death, and goad him: ‘Who is your tormentor?’
The congregation expresses shock at the viciousness of the crowd.
Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. The cock crows – Peter realises that Jesus’ prophecy has come to pass.
A man begs forgiveness for Jesus’ fate. The congregation vow to return to faith.
Judas regrets his betrayal of Jesus. He returns the money to the Priests and hangs himself.
A man demands that they give Jesus back to him
The Governor, Pontius Pilate, attempts to interview Jesus. Pilate asks the crowd to choose between the prisoner Barabbas and Jesus. Pilate’s wife intervenes, having dreamed of Jesus’ innocence. The mob calls for Barabbas to be spared and Jesus to be crucified.
The congregation note that Christ is paying for the guilt of others, when he has done nothing but good. A woman weeps that He dies for love.
Pilate washes his hands of the guilt of killing Jesus and Barabbas is freed. The mob mocks the ‘King of the Jews’. At Golgotha, Jesus is stripped and crucified with two murderers.
A man begs for Jesus’ punishment to stop. The shocked congregation hail Jesus for enduring such pain.
A man prays that Jesus’ cross be his to bear.
The congregation hope for redemption.
The hours of torture drag on. Jesus cries out to God ‘Why have you abandoned me?’ The crowd witness this last spasm of suffering. Jesus dies.
The congregation beg God not to abandon us in the pain of death.
A catastrophic earthquake wreaks destruction. Realisation dawns that Jesus was truly the Son of God. His followers mourn. One of them, Joseph, is granted Jesus’ body. He buries Jesus in his own tomb.
A man eulogises Evening – the hour of cataclysmic events, and now a time to make peace. The congregation and soloists bid farewell to Jesus.
Kommt, ihr Tochter (7:36)
Ich will dir mein Herze schenken (3:41)
St Matthew Passion - Gillian Wills on Arts Hub - 25 March, 2013
St Matthew Passion @ QPAC - Fiona Scotney for Media Culture - 22 March, 2013
Bach's St Matthew Passion - Flloyd Kennedy for Critical Mass - 22 March, 2013
On Centre Stage - Douglas Kennedy for Hush Hush Biz - 22 March, 2013
Director’s Note: When I staged Bach’s monumental St Matthew Passion at the 2005 Perth International Arts Festival, I freely admit I was completely terrified. I had stepped in only when another (far more famous) director had withdrawn at the last minute, and walked into rehearsals feeling like I really shouldn’t be there. Bach’s work is recognised as a masterpiece, a sublime interpretation of historic events of profound religious significance and immense human implications, century upon century. It’s been the focus of some of history’s greatest musical scholarship. What could I – a non-musician, non-historian, spiritually uncommitted – possibly bring to the staging of this work? Why stage it at all? Why in contemporary clothes? Aren’t we in general agreement that Bach’s work is perfect as it is? The questions that tortured me remain valid in 2013. Yet I’m approaching this new version with excited anticipation, because while I’m filled with respect and awe at the prospect of doing it again in Brisbane, the terror has gone: staging the St Matthew Passion in 2005 turned out to be simply one of the highlights of my life. And my approach to the staging remains the same: stay out of the way. Just let the musicians play, the singers sing and simply tell this extraordinary story. Bach’s genius will do the rest.
I grew up in a non-religious environment, with an instinctive suspicion of all things preachy and limited contact with Bible stories, yet like countless others I am drawn to the music and the immensity of the St Matthew Passion. In preparing this project, I deeply regret that the impact of this great drama has so often been stifled by an alienating formality, traditional protocols and staging, and the overall stiffness of oratorio performance style in the concert hall. The text is rarely surtitled, but when it’s sung in English it feels stilted and antiquated. The whole exercise is often treated as untouchably ‘holy’, rather than as the passionate retelling of a heartbreaking story of betrayal and forbearance, with monumental human implications throughout history. What can we, as a community, learn from this work? Why am I, a non-Christian, moved to tears each time I hear it? As we wrestle with the world’s unimaginable tragedies - war, natural disasters and social injustice – the work demands we contemplate the nature of Faith and Suffering. The Passion demands of its audiences much more than any opera. Bach places the audience – individually and communally – within the work, as witnesses to, and protagonists and perpetuators of, the suffering (passio) of Christ.
There is a sense of the community onstage reaching out to the community in the auditorium. It is this reaching action that is the basis of tonight’s staged treatment, and the quality that has allowed the work to speak across so many centuries and cultures. A sense of shared purpose implicit in the work connects the singers to the audience in a very powerful accord. This quote from the 2005 program notes, written by the Dean of Perth, the Very Reverend Dr John Shepherd, makes it clear why this project is just as ideal for performance by an opera company as in a church environment:
“Matthew’s account of the Passion of the Christ is a narrative of suffering comprised of violent and disturbing images: an anointing for burial, a vigil, a betrayal, a brutal arrest, a demeaning trial, a disowning, a condemnation, a humiliation, a torture and a death. They are images designed to evoke horror, not only at the suffering of the Christ but at the universal suffering of humanity.”
The work is a masterpiece because of its innate humanity. It explores suffering on every human level: emotional, mental, physical and spiritual. The work is full of imperfect people: greedy, deceitful, weak and self-interested – drawn in contrast with Jesus’ selflessness, stoicism and compassion. This very flawed director is drawn to the dilemma within the character of Matthew, the Evangelist, formerly a tax collector for the Romans, compelled to abandon everything for Jesus. How must he feel? He tells his painful story having spent years with Jesus, learning from him, breaking bread at the Last Supper with him, having been dragged away by the soldiers to meet the torture he had prophesied. The guilt and shame continually expressed by the congregation emanates from the Evangelist. On our screens we see graphic images of unimaginable suffering every day, yet the St Matthew Passion allows us to contemplate the example of Jesus whose suffering was a cleansing – a gift of Love.
Awesome is not too strong a word for Bach’s achievement. We have assembled a very special group of wonderful international and Australian singers and musicians. We have the Tony Award winning lighting designer Nigel Levings creating a beautiful environment within which to tell the Passion story. And of course at the heart of this project are our good friends and partners the Camerata of St John’s, led by violinist Brendan Joyce, whose immediate enthusiasm and continued support has been central to making this Brisbane season happen. And Graham Abbott, whose love for and connection to this music is well-known to Australian audiences through his radio program Keys to Music must have the final word on the piece: “I can only marvel at the way the trees form the most marvellous forest: the architecture, balance, shape, pacing…it’s all perfect. As you join us for what we hope will be a remarkable performance, allow Bach to do his magic and allow time to stand still as you meditate with us on the power of love and sacrifice. You’ll never be the same.”
Passion: from the Latin “passio”, “passus” (to suffer); traditionally used to describe the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life, from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion.
A conductor older and wiser than I once said that, as he stood on the podium about to start a performance of the St Matthew Passion, all he could think about was the perfection of the work, and how daunting a responsibility it was to have to bring this amazing work to life. Another conductor once said to me that there are two works which stand at the pinnacle of western music, which encapsulate all that is great and which say it all: Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
These comments by conductors serve to illustrate that we too think in terms of superlatives when it comes to what CPE Bach called ‘the great Passion’. There is no doubting that JS Bach created one of the most overwhelming masterpieces of music when he wrote this work; for musicians it’s the equivalent of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel paintings, or Hamlet, or the Olympic Games. It’s wonderful, but it’s also terrifying.
The St Matthew Passion is terrifying because of its scope, its depth of feeling, its sheer size. It has those things in common with Wagner’s Ring. What makes the St Matthew Passion special, though, is its intimacy. Bach needs no orchestra of 120, no dazzling frescoes, sword fights or marathons. Using relatively modest forces he manages to do what only great art can – he simultaneously overwhelms and touches. The most shattering description of utter desolation – the soprano aria Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben – requires only four performers. Yet Bach manages to create in even the most unbelieving of listeners the sense that maybe this story really means something. To the believer it must be truly indescribable.
But it doesn't matter what your religious beliefs are. Fact or fiction, the work deals with universal themes we all know from personal experience: fear, uncertainty, suffering, death, grief, pain, injustice, guilt. Bach tears your heart out of your chest with those simple dots on the page and makes you feel like you're there. More than that, he makes it feel like the piece is about you.
I know the St Matthew Passion so well yet not a page, not a line, bores me. The story is the epitome of ugliness, clothed in music of unspeakable beauty. What a privilege to be able to work on it again here in Brisbane.
A note from the Dean St John’s Cathedral, Brisbane:
Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry,
but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot.
The reality is so horrible….
Auden understood that the poet is called ‘to produce as beautiful and admirable a verbal work as possible’ and that this requirement causes the poet to idealise reality. He saw that the quest for beauty leads poets to falsify obscene and painful experiences like the crucifixion; to falsify them by trivialising their dreadful historical reality. When one considers much of the art, poetry and music which deals with Good Friday, one can understand Auden’s point. Much of it trivialises the pain, the betrayal and the dark underside of human nature The Passion of Jesus reveals. Even religious approaches to the story can mask its devastating elements. So often an ‘other-world’ Jesus is portrayed as transacting a magic exchange with the devil or God as easily as a child fulfils an errand. Such approaches see the term Good Friday itself become problematic. Good? For whom? For Mary? For Jesus?
The religious and artistic gloss can so easily re-cover the brutality of the cross and the human capacity for cruelty that the authors of the gospels were seeking to unmask. For them Good Friday was the day when darkness covered the earth; the day hope died; the day that peeled back the curtain on an aspect of our nature we continually need to face and deal with. It is this unmasking that leads people to develop a passion for justice and to become sensitive to the cry of the victim.
Auden’s claim, like many a universal statement, is defeated by the human capacity to produce the exceptional; in this case exceptional works of art, poetry, music and performance. For example, Bruce Dawe’s use of the term Good Friday in A Good Friday Was Had by All is no less than brilliant, and the poem’s content accentuates the stark reality and barbarism of the cross:
held the spikes steady and I let fly
with the sledge-hammer, not looking
on the downswing trying hard not to hear
over the women's wailing the bones give way
the iron shocking the dumb wood.
Likewise this Opera Queensland and Camerata of St John’s production of Bach’s St Matthew Passion will ensure that we do not escape the mixture of hard and raw emotion, and intimacy, which enlivens the story of the journey to the cross and makes it so engaging. The imaginative staging uses interactions between the singers, and between the singers and musicians, to portray and accentuate the drama of the subject. The modern and everyday clothing likewise adds to the reality of the events. There is no Christ in a dinner suit preparing for death. This production releases anew the engaging drama Bach fashioned into this significant work and which has captured the imagination of people for hundreds of years. This enduring work honours the deeply human and ongoing story of the passion. May we be deeply moved by the story this performance re-opens for us. And may our eyes come to see those whose lives replicate the Passion in our own day; those who are wrongly persecuted or accused, and those whose lives are consumed by cycles of violence.
The Very Rev’d Dr Peter Catt
30 below available for all performances
Concert Hall, QPAC
Sung in German with projected English translations.
The performance lasts approximately three hours and ten minutes including one twenty-minute interval.
Image: Paul Whelan as Jesus in the 2005 Perth International Arts Festival production.