PRODIGAL OPERA THEATRE presents:
A Special Work
With a composer such as Bach, one finds himself frequently unable to choose a greatest masterpiece. Like few other men in history, nearly every task to which he set his pen yielded something utterly sublime, often remaining a seminal contribution to whichever genre for which he happened to be composing; the 'cello and violin sonatas are a staple of the strings' repertory to this day; The Well-Tempered Clavier, Art of Fugue and Musical Offering represent the apex of fugal writing, though are by no means an exhaustive accounting of his mastery of this skill; the Mass in B minor is regarded as a unique musical treasure the world over.
While in no way wishing to diminish the enormous potency of any of his multifarious creations, I would offer my own humble and very personal opinion that his very best work as a composer is to be found in the St Matthew Passion, the very last complete large work of his output (the remaining large works after 1727, including the B minor Mass, were mostly adaptations of previously composed music). I offer this opinion with the very self-conscious bias of a dramatist.
Bach is dependably balanced in his approach to form, orchestration, musical devices, counterpoint, harmony -- indeed all dimensions of composition. Yet, in the passions, especially the St Matthew, Bach responds to his text with a music of such dire emotional sincerity that only a lifetime of musical discipline manages to reign in these quasi-Romantic impulses. This, in my view, is a precious glimpse into the life of a man who never was: JS Bach, the composer of operas. Much like Wagner, the composer of symphonies, or Mozart the composer of tragedies, the uncontrollable circumstances of life left us bereft of such possibilities (in these latter examples, death found these men before such phases of their careers could become manifest, while in Bach's case, a devotional spirit and unappreciative Dresden consigned his large-scale vocal writing to liturgical applications).
And yet, The St Matthew Passion is a perfect model of study for any serious composer of musical dramas. Its story is both mythical and profoundly personal with a musical life all its own. This life is a powerful draw for music-lovers of all stripes, but its Christian content (and indisputably Christian authors) often leads to contention amongst fans. Many posit that only the devout can properly penetrate its depths, while others argue that the music alone is beautiful enough to be enjoyed by all. As an opera lover, I would speculate that non-Masons are full equipped to appreciate the complex and moving humanism of The Magic Flute, and it would be naïve to consider Parsifal a "Christian" work any more than The Ring is an authentic representation of the dead Norse faith from which those legends originate. It is true that Bach's Lutheran faith is on display in all his religious works, but in responding to the psychological aspects of the Passion story, regardless of his assumption to its veracity, he was creating a dramatic art, not a proselytisation (nor a repudiation) of religious belief. This is precisely what great opera ought to do : mine the libretto's narrative for its musical potential. This is why St Matthew has been chosen as the flagship production for the Prodigal Opera Theatre; it is a work usually left out of serious discussions of opera, yet intensely connected to those aspects of our consciousness which respond to opera's unique powers. It is, in the most important ways, a better opera than most of those works which get to call themselves opera as well as enjoy a reputation as great works of drama. It is my sincere belief that if the ideal model of opera were understood to be more like The St Matthew Passion and less like, say, Tosca, the art of opera would enjoy the status it deserves as the highest expression of human genius. And what greater human genius can we hope for than Bach?
An Operatic Production
We are quite lucky that the past several decades have seen a stupendous uprising in the art of historical performance. Painstaking musicological research, the reconstruction of period instruments, and specialised training have allowed modern performers to get much closer to what's Bach's own ears would have heard than looking at the score alone ever allowed us to do. That said, historical performance practice has not usurped beloved interpretations from 20th-century masters like Karl Richter. Nor are the arias and choruses of Bach's great choral works, including St Matthew consigned to period-specific ensembles and singers. One of the great things about Bach is there is no "right way" of hearing his work. Historical performance is indispensably informative in our understanding of how Bach's notations translate into the sounds we hear, but there are entirely other worlds which open up when his scores are subject to the imagination of great interpreters. In envisioning a St Matthew for the opera stage, several decisions had to be made. The Passion has been successfully staged before including a recent Sellers production by the Berlin Philharmonic. There are several bits in the passion narrative that involve characters heard from only briefly, while the chorus is ubiquitous, commenting on the action or adding bits of "crowd" dialogue. Although many modern productions successfully bring traditional opera into this more abstracted realm, where individuation and plot logic are reduced in favour of affect and image, in our case, we are dealing with a libretto which makes little attempt to provide verisimilitude. The abstract quality is wonderful, but we actually needed to move somewhat in the opposite direction in order to fully realise the staging potential of this work. Therefore, all sung parts, including the chorus bits are assigned to specific roles. Mary Magdalene, Pilate, the twelve disciples, witness, etc. are all specifically named and cast. This leaves the Evangelist, the story's narrator, in a different position altogether. It was decided that his narration should in fact represent the Passion's original purpose, an evangelising reading of the Gospel to a congregation. The congregation is represented by four singers (SATB) who take on different bits of the commentary in such a way as to maintain Bach's trans-temporal design. Thus the story proceeds simultaneously as a narrative and as a staged drama. All together, the re-imagined score requires 26 singing voices and 18 instrumentalists.