Sweden J.S.Bach: St. John Passion, Wermland Opera Orchestra, Henrik Schaefer (conductor), Karlstad, 24.3.2012 (GF)
Director: Tobias Kratzer
Sets and Costumes: Rainer Sellmaier
Lighting Design: Björn Skansen
Mathias Hedegaard – Evangelist
Dominik Köninger – Jesus
AnnLouice Lögdlund – Angel
Hanna Husáhr – Maria Magdalena
Anna-Maria Krawe – Maid Servant
Johan Schinkler – St. Peter
Jonas Durán – Servant
Johan Rydh – Pontius Pilate
A group of people who happen to be at the same place at the same time become involved in a role play based on the St John Passion. An angel chooses one of the men to be the Evangelist and his task is to stage the play, allot the different roles to suitable persons and engage them in the proceedings. They all perform in their own casual clothes and there is a limited supply of props. When the performance is about to start, the angel is already on stage, carrying a book, the Gospel according to John. An empty table fills the stage evoking memories of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting The Last Supper – the apostles and Jesus having already deserted the room. During the orchestral introduction people gradually fill the stage and occupy the table. The Evangelist tries during the powerful and dramatic opening chorus to allocate the roles, which is no small feat: the participants are reluctant and it is hard find someone willing to accept the role of Jesus. Finally, a tall dark young fellow in jeans and a t-shirt is more or less forced to receive the chalice that is Christ’s symbol. When everything is organized, there is a motley crowd of characters in front of the audience: St Peter in jogging togs and on crutches (the crutches were not in the original concept but became necessary since Johan Schinkler injured his Achilles’ tendon during rehearsals and is now wearing a cast), the maid servant in a formal secretary’s outfit, Pontius Pilate a true bureaucrat in a dark lounge suit and carrying an attaché case, while Maria Magdalena, who is only mentioned in passing in the Gospel, is one of the apostles here – and a tough bride in a leather-jacket with rivets she is, sporting a tattoo and all of the trimmings…
Does this sound weird and at odds with the biblical story and Bach’s music? Well, it isn’t. It works perfectly well and when the two-hour-long work is over, one leaves the beautiful theatre filled with almost revelatory feelings, awed at the cruel process that led to the crucifixion of the Saviour, moved and inspired by the power and the intensity of the music making and the unfolding of the drama. Bach’s music for this little-sister of the St Matthew Passion has always struck me as far more humane and lifelike than the serene and over-worldly St Matthew. ‘Too operatic’, was the verdict of some of Bach’s contemporaries – but it is exactly the characteristic required for this high-octane drama and with springy and well-modulated playing from the 26-member, strong orchestra, with excellent singing and acting from the small but efficient chorus, the enthusiastic audience were treated to a performance that had one sitting on the edge of one’s seat during most of the evening. A large bunch of roses for the director, Tobias Kratzer, about whose Rigoletto a few years ago I wrote ‘scenically [it] is an unqualified success from beginning to end’. Even more than then, the sense of a master-mind with a very clear vision is obvious. He has gone far in creating clearly outlined personalities out of all the characters, as well as of some of the choristers, and there seemed not to be a single gesture, or even a single facial expression, that was not motivated. This detailed macro-work was also confirmed by one member of the cast whom I talked to after the performance. Of course one can question or wonder about the details, but that happens with any production. The participants on the stage seem just as perplexed at the tragic end, and in the last scene turn their backs on the Evangelist, who is left alone on the stage, misunderstood or maybe just as perplexed at the outcome of the story he directed.
The choruses and the chorales are all-important in this work, but the solo contributions also have to be good to make a great St John Passion, and the Wermland Opera are lucky indeed to have a truly superb group of soloists. Many of them are stalwarts of the house, like AnnLouice Lögdlund, who sings the alto arias with warmth and expression, Anna-Maria Krawe, who was far better than her Gilda two years ago, tenor Jonas Durán, whose lirico-spinto has expanded further since I last heard him and now possesses a brilliance and heft that may not be what Bach had intended but promises well for future roles in the standard Italian repertoire. The two basses are also well known. Johan Schinkler confirmed that he has few if any superiors in his Fach in Sweden, and Johan Rydh was a noble but in the last resort weak Pilate, singing with great beauty.
The all-important role of the Evangelist was superbly delivered by Danish tenor Mathias Hedegaard, whose mellifluous and well modulated voice expressed all the nuances of his long recitatives. German baritone Dominik Köninger invested Jesus with nobility and defiance. The sight of his naked body, crucified, smeared with the blood in which INRI was painted on his chest, lingered in my memory long after I left the theatre. Last but definitely not least, Hanna Husáhr’s Maria Magdalena: her crystal-clear and ravishingly beautiful soprano is a real treat and one can only regret that she hasn’t more to sing, but she acted her, arguably, controversial part splendidly and in a few months she will be heard in a much bigger role: Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera på Skäret.
This St John Passion is a triumph for all involved and should be seen by everyone with an interest in musical theatre.