St Matthew Passion, Glyndebourne, East Sussex, UK

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It might be best to leave that luxury picnic at home. For the next few weeks bread and wine should rightly be the simple fare on the nights when Glyndebourne is performing the St Matthew Passion, if the audience is to enter fully into the solemn 18th-century German Protestant spirit of Bach’s religious masterpiece.

There have been cries of protest that Glyndebourne should be performing the St Matthew Passion at all. Bach intended the work to be played in church and nothing about it feels like a conventional opera, so good answers are needed, which other companies that have tried staging his shorter St John Passion in recent years have largely failed to find.

The original plan had been to use this opportunity to invite back Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who had been so unforgettable in Glyndebourne’s production of Handel’s oratorio Theodora. But sadly the glorious American mezzo died last year, before the project could reach fruition, and the festival is fortunate to have Sarah Connolly in her place, singing the all-important mezzo arias with an inward concentration that embodies the essence of what the St Matthew Passion is all about.

The real problem, however, still remains. How to stage the unstageable? Katie Mitchell, the director, has decided to home in on the communal element at the heart of Bach’s passions – a wise choice, as that is where we can share in the emotions of the Passion story. Her setting, brilliantly designed by Vicki Mortimer, is a small school hall, late Victorian in style with large windows, through which occasional flurries of snow can be seen. With the lights down low, there is a palpable sense of a welcoming refuge from the cold outside, a community huddled together for warmth and comfort.

Here is the essence of the new plot Mitchell has devised: people are gathering in mourning for their children who have died – we aren’t told how – and a group of travelling players is entertaining them by enacting the story of Jesus’s death. (I can tell you this definitively as the programme has an explanatory note to enlighten anybody who might otherwise be left bemused.) The atmosphere of communal grieving is so powerfully sustained that it would be quite possible to become immersed in it right through to the final curtain. But there are some important questions here begging to be asked. Does the Easter story mean so little to us now that another plot has to be grafted on top? Are we so transfixed by the tragedies we see on television news – a Dunblane or a Beslan – that we cannot be expected to react to the universal suffering of mankind?

In musical terms the performance fortunately stays on the right side of operatic over-emoting. Mark Padmore is a tower of strength as the Evangelist, as he was when English National Opera staged the St John Passion, and Henry Waddington does a solid job as the traveller playing Jesus. The bass solos are strongly sung by Christopher Purves, with Ingela Bohlin pure-voiced as the soprano soloist and Andrew Tortise not wholly at ease as the tenor. Richard Egarr, the conductor, likes Bach that is eloquently light and fluent, not digging in deep as Bach conductors did 50 years ago, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment plays beautifully
for him.

In the end this project was probably always doomed to failure. But Glyndebourne can at least thank Katie Mitchell and her team for delivering a failure that is honourable, a more strongly conceived piece of work than most other attempts at staging the Bach passions and sometimes surprisingly haunting.
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