One year on from the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, ETO presents a free broadcast of our 2020 production of Bach's St John Passion to kick off our 2021 digital season.
James Conway's staging united professional soloists and the period orchestra, the Old Street Band, with singers from the Collegium Musicum of London Chamber Choir, Hackney Singers, Hackney Choral and London Youth Boys' Choir for a distinctive reimagined performance of St John Passion. Shot at Hackney Empire on 5 March 2020, the film weaves together performance footage with 90 individual video contributions made by choir members in isolation from Cumbria to Cornwall who were due to participate in performances across the country before the remaining tour dates were cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
The broadcast will be accompanied by a new documentary that reunites the production's cast to explore their experiences during the past year of lockdown, and preceded by a pre-concert discussion with James Conway and the production's conductor, Jonathan Peter Kenny.
Intensity and urgency underpin English Touring Opera’s reflections on faith, loss and mortality
The core of the piece is the Gospel narrative. Bach retained the Biblical text (in Martin Luther’s German translation), which he set to recitative; in addition to this, he adapted contemporary poetry for the arias and a selection of chorales from seventeenth-century hymnals. The arias offer a commentary on the events described by the Evangelist and represent the highest level of complexity, with language rich in metaphors and a variety of musical accompaniments. The chorales are plainer, and their function is to represent us, the worshippers, and our collective response to the crucifixion. They would have been familiar to the congregation in the churches of Bach’s time, who might or might not have joined in the singing for these musical numbers.
The Passion story is inherently dramatic – with its apparently eye witness narrative pushing inexorably to Jesus’ death – and Bach’s setting has a strong sense of urgency. The interplay between the three levels of text in the piece (the Bible, the ornate poetry of the arias, and the chorales) gives the St John Passion its richness and poignancy, and partly explains its status as one of the most perfect musical creations in Western civilisation.
We have taken an unusual approach to the presentation of these performances of the St John Passion. While we perform the entire work, including the additional bass aria “Himmel reisse” (“Heaven open, earth now quake”), we have divided the role of the Evangelist between the soloists rather than allotting it to one tenor. We do this to give the story intensity and purpose, and to reconsider some of the performance conventions that risk making the Evangelist more elegant than evangelistic. The purpose of telling this story is so that those who have not physically witnessed the Passion will be moved to believe – in the words of our rehearsals - so that the audience may feel their natural fear of death overcome by pity and love, and they will emerge hopeful from this awful (full of awe!) story.
Each of the soloists has created a character – and the character is defined by the incident or series of incidents that made them first believe (or, from another point of view, the moment at which they felt they experienced grace, free help from outside, and that they overcame their terrible fear and learned to hope). Clearly, the lesson of hope goes on and on, and the soloists are struggling in their own way – but, together with the orchestral players in this drama, they are helping each other by telling the story that defines who they are now. We want to give a sense that on another night the soloists could adopt different roles – no one of them is ‘Jesus’, for example, or the thoughtful Evangelist, but each has a relationship to the story they are committed to sharing.