Review: LAO dances their way into a Bach masterwork

With the help of the Hamburg Ballet and their venerable US-born choreographer John Neumeier, our own LA Opera opened a run of J.S. Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ last Saturday, to powerful effect.

Background

The Bach oratorio is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest masterpieces of Western sacred music, a dramatic Baroque gem that defied the scale of its time and raised the power of the oratorio to a new level. At that time, this compositional form served a social purpose as well as musical and spiritual: as opera and theater were forbidden in many areas during Lent, the oratorio provided means for dramatic expression on Biblical themes, and offered audiences (pious or not) a chance to gather for alternative artistic reasons. Due to the ban, the oratorios were not staged as operas are, but contain many of the same elements: orchestra, soloists, chorus, and perhaps even distinct characters within the drama.

And so we find this work, based on St. Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ final week before the Crucifixion. LAO’s partnership with the Hamburg Ballet is not merely unusual, but ground-breaking, bringing our audiences a new layer of storytelling and a different way of experiencing Bach’s music.

The piece itself was first performed in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church in 1727, and on its own, is about three hours long. With a beautifully presented opening anthem for Ukraine by the chorus, silent sections, extended dance sequences and intermission, this production brings the experience to almost four hours, but is engaging enough that we only really saw listeners flagging and nodding toward the end, after 11pm. It was a nearly full house at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion that greeted the performers enthusiastically, and most stayed with them to the end. This powerful combination served the material well, and brought new perspective to a well-known story.

Dance

The stage was fairly bare, with modular sets that were moved and reconfigured as needed throughout the show. The opera chorus was seated in the depths of the stage, wearing black, while the dancers were in white, and arranged in various groups and clusters. Costumes were austere, made for movement, of course — but almost entirely without ornament and very little of the high makeup seen in other ballets. What was evident from the start is that while the supertitles were (as usual) helpful for those not fluent in German, the action was not entirely dependent on them. This was a relief, as the dancing was fascinating on its own, an aggressively modern physical expression of the work’s intense emotional content.

While there were snatches of more traditional, graceful and balletic dancing here and there, much of Neumeier’s choreography is deliberately angular, extremely modern, and astonishingly athletic and even acrobatic. His careful mix of classic and familiar dance techniques and movements that are often deliberately jerky and less fluid create a broad physical vocabulary for the dancers. The resulting expression lends violence and startling power to the emotive storytelling, vividly portraying the anguish felt by Jesus and his disciples, the intense conflict they went through in those particular days. These dances, which I had feared would be an element merely superimposed over the familiar work, became instead an essential and powerful articulation of the psychological impact of the tale. Because the dancers were working so hard to help us feel what these events must have been like, the story was profoundly realized and even further elevated.

As someone who attends dance-focused events less often than some, I found the program notes and cast lists for the dancers to be quite confusing, if understandably so, as they are based on the performers’ positions in the company rather than specific characters. This is normal, apparently, but as an arts buff who is more used to opera programs than ballet, I fear that I cannot properly acknowledge several of the individuals whose considerable talents were displayed. However, I can say with certainty that the dancing was excellent, with Marc Jubete particularly distinguished dancing the role of Jesus, as well as Anna Laudere, Edvin Revazov, Aleix Martinez, Xue Lin, Karen Azatyan and Yaiza Coll. Bravi tutti. You can read more about the company here.

The Hamburg Ballet in LA Opera’s 2022 production of “St. Matthew Passion” — photo by Kiran West

This choreography as a whole was enthralling, its execution a masterclass in leverage, teamwork and careful practice. For a non-dancer, it seems impossible that no one was dropped, with so many varying holds and configurations as the dancers interacted, carried each other around and intertwined in a hundred different ways. Opera is certainly not usually this sinewed, even with a cast full of barihunks… If ever there were an effective outreach program to convert opera buffs to dance fanatics, this is it.

Vocals

But let’s talk do about the singing. With two character soloists and a solo quartet singing from the pit and sizable 44-voice chorus at the top of the stage, this mashup production was still very much a creation of sublime vocal mastery. Joshua Blue, singing the Evangelist, stood out significantly, with crisp delivery and pure tone that was consistent and captivating throughout, in a role that has confounded many fine tenors — a fine achievement. A joy to listen to, his voice climbed to dizzying heights and eased back to earth with agonizing, slow elegance As Jesus, bass-baritone Michael Sumuel delivered a compelling portrayal and a rich, sonorous voice. The quartet, comprised of soprano Tamara Wilson, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, tenor Ben Bliss and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson impressed individually, but were excellent in the exquisite and memorable ensembles.

While Graham is already a superstar, Wilson is well on her way, with strong yet smooth handling of the Bach melismas, which were solidly supported and sung with a bright, silvery sound and a well-projected lower range. Graham’s warm, mellifluous sound was fully present, although not entirely precise, but she sounds so good it’s hard to care. Her expressive delivery is calm and almost effortless, reminding us why we love her so. Bliss’ bright tenor has grown in depth and presence, and his voice’s ease and fluidity was a bright spot in a dark work. Sigmundsson’s booming sound is as wonderful as ever, if perhaps a little looser in tone, and he provided a commanding foundation.

The chorus sounded terrific, acting in a Greek-inspired function where they are to the side and comment on the action with well-known chorales. This would have served in the original performances to lead congregational singing throughout the service, but even now, the tunes will be familiar to many classical devotees and while there were a couple of difficult entrances that weren’t quite spot-on, the singing and choral presence were most welcome.

The glue

In the pit, conductor James Conlon brought all of these pieces together admirably, and the orchestra was so capable that they formed the bedrock of a difficult, multi-faceted endeavor. As mentioned above, this show, so dependent on cameras and remote monitors due to the placement of the various performer groups, is not an easy execution. But there were only a few hiccups in the sync between groups. This was no period-scaled performance, but while purists might accuse LAO of Romanticizing the Baroque master, it still sounded like very much like Bach… if wearing slightly modern trappings.

That is the magic of an adaptation like this: by bringing new perspective to a work that is nearly three hundred years old, we are reinvigorated by all that dynamic energy. Conlon seems to understand this well, and addresses both the historical context and some of the modern issues with the mashup in his pre-concert talk, which is available on YouTube and is also broadcast on the large plaza screens one hour before each performance. Those historical notes seem particularly useful in this experience, and it’s well worth viewing, even if you can’t make the performance. But while there will always be detractors whenever a new presentation is offered, LAO continues to forge ahead, and this is just the sort of dynamic reimagining that can draw new listeners into well-worn repertoire. Four hours well spent.


Five more performances — get details and tickets at laopera.org, and see the trailer below:

  • Thursday, March 17, 7:30pm
  • Sunday, March 20, 2pm
  • Wednesday, March 23, 7:30pm
  • Saturday, March 26, 7:30pm
  • Sunday, March 27, 2pm

COVID Notes

LA Opera is doing an excellent job of notifying ticketholders of mask and vaccination requirements on their website, within ticket confirmations, and in email reminders as well as on-site signage. Be prepared, and plan to come early so you can show your vaccination or test records, receive your bracelet showing that you’ve been screened, and get fully checked in. Their staff was polite and very organized, and are working hard to keep everyone safe. As always nowadays, be sure to check the website for the latest updates before you head for the theater, and stay home if you’re feeling ill.


Featured photo at top: Aleix Martinez and Xue Lin with the Hamburg Ballet ensemble in LA Opera’s 2022 production of “St. Matthew Passion” — photo by Kiran West

All performance photos provided courtesy of LA Opera

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