In an inspired production perfectly scheduled for the run-up to Easter, Opera Queensland and the Camerata of St John’s give a moving and musically sublime performance of Bach’s masterpiece.
Enhancing the richness of the music is a creative staging of the work where principals and chorus in casual clothing act out the drama of Christ’s last days. Jesus in jeans and tee-shirt sits with his followers cross-legged on timber stands. Characters move around, behind and in front of the centrally-placed double orchestra. Jesus staggers from the stage to walk towards Golgotha up the aisle of the concert hall.
OQ artistic director Lindy Hume’s staging steers a satisfactory middle course between concert performance with minor acting flourishes and a full opera presentation which might easily veer into melodrama. Props and sets are eschewed, but the miming and body language are fluent and pertinent – for example in the anointing of Christ’s hair, the betrayal and the way of the cross.
There are some deeply moving moments, such as the scourging of Christ, where baritone Paul Whelan convulses in agony as the violins evoke whips, and the pieta-like (and beautifully lit) pose in which soloist Andrew Collis holds Christ.
And ever-memorable is the prolonged hugging of soprano Sara Macliver by counter-tenor Tobias Cole as their voices soar to the heavens in “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” against the staccato bursts of the perfectly drilled chorus.
At this point Cole has already impressed mightily with the work’s first aria, “Buss und Reu” and its preceding recitative, accompanied by lovely flute and continuo, and is to excel in the deeply moving “Erbarme dich”, together with Camerata leader Brendan Joyce’s stunning violin solo.
(As an aside, in a brief interview well worth seeing, famed British opera director Jonathan Miller, who has also staged the St Matthew Passion, explains how “Erbarme dich” always brings him to tears.)
Macliver’s liquid tones are stunning also in her solo pieces, including “Blute nur” and the plaintive “Aus Liebe will mien Heiland sterben”.
Bass Andrew Collis’s rich vocal and dramatic talents shine through, including his rendition of the closing aria, “Mache dich” (which I would have preferred not to have been sung from the second row of the chorus, as he was barely visible).
Robert Macfarlane’s demonstrates a pleasing tenor voice in his beautiful aria with chorus, “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen”. The 10 soloists of the OQ chamber ensemble perform their diverse supporting parts with great vocal skill as well as sympathy for the characters.
Weaving it all together vocally is Swedish tenor Leif Aruhn-Solen as the Evangelist, his brilliant singing complemented by his command of the stage and interactions with the other performers.
The orchestra, divided into two parts, plays flawlessly, with Michael Fulcher on the chamber organ and Shaun Ng on the viola da gamba providing a seamless continuo.
Graham Abbott conducts the performance with verve and excitement. Some of the numbers, including the opening chorus, are somewhat faster than I prefer, but this is a matter of personal taste.
More problematically, the full orchestra dominates the chorus in the opening, and almost completely drowns the distantly-placed chorale (sung by students from Moreton Bay College and Brisbane Boys’ College).
But overall this is a magnificent production – a fitting tribute to Bach on his birthday (21st March 1685).