St Johns' Passion - J. S. Bach - Stephen Layton - English National Opera

On 26 March 2002, I saw the ENO at the Coliseum in a performance of J. S. Bach's St Johns' Passion, which was conducted by Stephen Layton. The first performance of Bach's oratorio was given on Good Friday in 1724 at the Nicolaikirche, Leipzig.

The ENO thanked the members of the Community Chorus whom, following the workshops and training led by ENO's Baylis, sang the chorales from the boxes on the sides of the proscenium. The audience was invited to join them in "Oh Lord, who dares to smite Thee?", "Christ, whose life was as the light" and "O Jesus, when I come to die"." IN THE BEGINNING was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth on darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."      John 1: 1-5

At the Symphony Hall, Birmingham on 13 February 2002 (Ash Wednesday), there was another performance of St John's Passion conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, with the beautiful singing of Ian Bostridge as the Evangelist. The sublime duet by counter-tenor Michael Jones and Richard Tunnicliffe's viola da gamba in Es ist Vellbracht was amazing; as was, Susan Gritton's anguished soprano heights for zerfliesse, mein Herze. The magnificent David Wilson-Johnson was triple cast as Jesus, Pilate and Peter. Most effective of all was Rattle's doubling of the chorus size for the chorales, which gave the impression of a church congregation joining in the majestic hymns, as they would have done in 1724 in Leipzig. The Times critic said, "If Rattle weren't about to become chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, I would put him forward for Archbishop of Canterbury. The pews would be packed."

On 25 March, St John's Passion was performed at the Barbican with the work sung by a German cast conducted by Helmuth Rilling crouched over his soloists like an old watchmaker polishing every detail of the music until it glowed. The Gachinger Kantorei are the most fantastically disciplined choir; every word counts in their rendition as is sang with perfection. The CVs of Marcus Ullman (Evangelist) and Sebastian Noack (Jesus) include lessons by Fischer-Diestkau and the 15 seconds of pin-drop silence at the end showed how far Rilling and company had gone towards making Lutherans of us all!!! Since I have been in London, I have been spending my Easters seeing St John's Passion. At the end at the ENO they come out on stage with a live little lamb in their arms. This image is always touching.


Verinha Ottoni.


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