St John Passion, Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris

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Move over Parsifal. It seems to be time for Wagner’s “innocent fool” to pack up his spear and helmet, as opera companies are increasingly turning away from Wagner’s Eastertide drama and looking to stage Bach’s religious passions as their seasonal entertainment instead. Heaven knows what Bach would have thought of the idea, but audiences seem to respond.

A capacity turn-out for the St John Passion has been ensured at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris by an all-star cast. Emmanuelle Haïm and the Orchestra and Chorus of the Concert d’Astrée are guarantors of high-quality period performance; there
is some imaginative casting among the big-name solo singers; and the production is directed by the popular (in Paris) Robert Wilson.

At the start of the performance a huge vulture painted on a drop-curtain surveys the audience with its beady eyes. Is it on the look-out to scavenge people who drop off to sleep? (In Wilson’s somnolent productions that is always a danger.) Such a vivid and specific image is unusual for him, but once the curtain rises we are back in Wilson’s usual world of abstraction, where characters pose like shop-window dummies modelling futuristic unisex fashions against a blue screen.

None of this will surprise anybody who has seen a Wilson production before. His St John Passion is identical to his Lohengrin and his Aida, which is quite an achievement. In Bach at least the static pictures fit (Bach did not ask for movement and Wilson does not give him any) but English National Opera’s staging a few years ago showed how much more there is to be gained from taking a risk and digging into the drama.

The best of this performance came from the excellence of the choral singing under Haïm and some characterful solo contributions: Pavol Breslik urgent and strong as the Evangelist; counter-tenor Andreas Scholl and baritone Christian Gerhaher touchingly inward in their arias; and soprano Emma Bell sounding as if she were dying to burst out of Wilson’s emotional straitjacket and wake everybody up. The vulture probably had some good pickings on Wednesday night.
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