Credit must be given to Mark Padmore, an incomparable, luminous evangelist whose narrative carries an electric charge. His intense focus and confiding refinement found their ideal complement in Christian Gerhaher as Christ. Visible in the first part, he then moved gradually up in the building, out of sight. To hear him sing ‘Eli, Eli, lama asabthani!’ from high up in the balcony was a transcendental experience. The sweetness of Camilla Tilling’s soprano was balanced by Magdalena Kozena’s ever-darker, fuller mezzo. Eric Owens was in fine voice; Topi Lehtipuu, with an uneven, hysteric edge, was the only weak link.
Sellars’s staging works best at its simplest: Pilate sings from the stalls, he’s one of us; Camilla Tilling’s whirling in ‘I give my heart to thee’ connects her music to its dance roots; tension crackles when Judas kisses the Evangelist (enacting Christ) full on the mouth; when the disciples flee, the choir do literally hurry away, leaving Padmore on a block, lamb to the slaughter. They prove a mobile group in more than one way, their warm empathy curdling to sharp condemnation. Never before have the scenes with High Priests and Pilate achieved such gripping momentum, as each successive opportunity to save Christ is lost.
Standard hierarchies melt: Rattle was almost obscured in the encircling singers, though his precise direction was evident in some startling tempi, chorales being both swift, or extremely slow, as in ‘O man, weep for thy great sin’, which here almost imperceptibly burgeoned into a monument of myriad timbres. Simon Halsey’s Berlin Radio Choir has radiant blend and finesse, but lacks a visceral edge.
The way Sellars brings obbligato soloists and singers into the same space is often illuminating. Yes, we may know the darkling, throaty cor anglais plays a big part, but seeing a pair so often in dialogue with singers and with bassoon underlines its crucial role. At times instrumentalists appear as guardian angels (Daniel Stabrawa wove a silken thread around Kozena’s moving ‘Ebarme dich’), at others, adversaries, as in Owens’s furious ‘wages of murder’ aria in which violinist Daishin Kashimoto’s virtuoso display takes on a fiery violence.
But while Sellars’s hasn’t overloaded this staging with the fussy hand actions that ruined Adams’s El Nino, there are moments when we seem to have stumbled into a signing performance (when the ‘false witnesses’ crudely enact building the temple) and I had to suppress my inner Frankie Howerd at Kozena’s lusty massaging of Padmore’s crotch or his somewhat compromising position underneath bass Eric Owens.
For all the hugging and lugging, Sellars is right to bring raw physicality to the stage: the text of St Matthew Passion is soaked in blood, sweat, and ‘hideously stinking’ sin, something we are apt to forget in our polite, ecclesiastical performances, everyone safe in their separate pews. When Kozena turns to 5000 faces with an angry ‘You butchers!’ she makes a direct hit at the collective conscience of the passive majority. When Gerhaher as Christ finds the disciples asleep on the Mount of Olives, there’s real fury in his plea, ‘What, could ye not watch with me one hour?’. The fact the work ends with a lullaby felt here not consoling, but troublingly ironic. As Padmore has rightly asked, ‘Are we supposed to feel comfortable?’