BACH: St. John Passion (A ritualisation by Peter Sellars) – DVDs & Blu-ray (2014/16)

by | Sep 1, 2016 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

An unsettling visual version of questionable value, but high musical marks.

BACH: St. John Passion (A ritualisation by Peter Sellars) – DVDs & Blu-ray (2014/16)

Performers: Mark Padmore (Evangelist)/ Camilla Tilling (sop.)/ Magdalena Kožená (mezzo)/ Topi Lehtipuu (tenor)/ Christian Gerhaher (bari.)/ Roderick Williams (Jesus)/ Berliner Philharmoniker/ Rundfunkchor Berlin/ Simon Rattle
Director: Peter Sellars
Studio: Berliner Philharmoniker BPHR140031, 2014 (2 DVDs and Blu-ray disc)
Video: 1080i Full HD for 16:9 (Blu-ray)
Audio: PCM Stereo, DTS 5.1 (DVDs), 2.0 PCM, DTS-HD MA 5.1 (Blu-ray)
Subtitles: German, English, French, Spanish, Japanese, Korean
No Region Code
Length: Concert: 135 mins, Extras: 52 mins. (in Hi-Def on Blu-ray)
Digital Concert Hall: 7-Day Ticket for the Berliner Philharmoniker’s video streaming service
Rating: ***

This is the BPO’s second Sellars foray of this type into Bach, the first being the St. Matthew Passion a few years back. What type, you ask? Well, a dramatization of the passion. And I’m a long way from being convinced about it, despite the slobbering European press and other predictable quarters hailing it as “revelatory”. Perhaps I am simply being overly-religious in my sentiments; I have always found that the Bach passions speak very well for themselves, with a simplicity and directness that belies any need for further expansion.

The idea of interpretatively dramatizing them, changing the concept into one where acting and movement are required, interfered with the very real communicative hiddenness of the gospel accounts. While the idea of making the very passion story more realistic and down to earth isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if it is at least done tastefully, the chorus lying on their backs and singing, making pleading gestures, and Jesus interrogated while sitting on a chair under a gestapo-type bright light reduces the accounts to pure fiction and utter silliness. Maybe, just maybe, in a European culture like Germany where Christianity is barely practiced by 4% of the population, and understanding of the gospels has been reduced to a comic book version, this sort of thing attracts people. But not all art is great art, and not all concepts, especially emanating from the brilliant but highly erratic Mr. Sellars, are great concepts, and this for me ruins the whole experience in a stellar and single work like the St. John Passion. Some of the arguments found in the notes asserting that the passion is “too dramatic for the church, too oratorical for the opera house, too religious for the concert hall” are historically uninformed and rather banal in their assumptions at Bach’s motives in composing passions to begin with. The St. John Passion, after all was included in the midst of the 1724 Good Friday Vespers service, and wasn’t even the last music heard in that event.

But there is good news—the video, for those who can watch it, is outstanding, and the sound regal. Rattle leads an exemplary performance, not period-like, but quite measured and emotional. The Berlin chorus does a wonderful job considering they had to memorize the entire score since they are onstage as part of the action, with a lot of movement, and Mark Padmore’s Evangelist is simply superb. A very pregnant Magdalena Kožená sings very well, though her being with child adds some (hopefully) unintended oddities to the visual aspects of the drama, and all the cast members are uniformly fine. You already know if you will like this.

—Steven Ritter

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