United States Bach, St. Matthew Passion: Soloists, Chicago Bach Choir, Chicago Bach Orchestra, Anima—Young Singers of Greater Chicago, John Nelson (conductor), Harris Theater, Chicago. 11.4.2014 (JLZ)
Evangelist: Nicholas Phan
Jesus: Stephen Morscheck
Soprano: Lisette Oropesa
Countertenor (Alto): Lawrence Zazzo
Tenor: Colin Ainsworth
Bass-baritone: Matthew Brook
Baritone: Tobias Greenhalgh
Under the direction of the esteemed conductor John Nelson, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, received an enthusiastic performance at the Harris Theater with the Chicago Bach Choir and Orchestra. The evening was sponsored by the SDG Foundation (formerly known as Soli Deo Gloria), which has as its mission the goal “to enhance, promote and preserve classical sacred music in the biblical tradition, at the highest level.” This is not the first time SDG presented the work, yet was the first time the group used the Harris Theater, instead of the St. Vincent de Paul Church in Lincoln Park. The ample Harris Theater space enabled the choruses and orchestras to be placed across the stage from each other, with the children’s choir (Anima—Young Singers of Greater Chicago) situated center stage rear, and the soloists in front of Nelson’s podium. The Evangelist was placed at the front of the stage, at a podium that suggested an ambo, and away from the conductor. Above the performers, the stage was adorned with a plain, wooden cross which, as Nelson commented in his program notes, evoked the liturgical space Bach intended.
The role of the Evangelist is central to narrating the Passion story, and Nicholas Phan made every utterance emotional. His dynamic range reflected modern tastes, from very soft, almost whispered lines to piercing, stentorian declamation. While the measured notation of the Evangelist’s recitatives should generally accommodate the speech rhythms of the German text, Phan took occasional liberties, sometimes sustaining pitches beyond the noted rhythms, increasing the part’s expressivity. This approach has its merits, but when it comes to the arioso-like echo of Jesus’s Aramaic “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani,” the line did not stand apart as it could. Phan’s intensity sometimes overshadowed the arias and other ensembles that responded to his lines, making the interaction not quite as seamless as it appears in the score.
In the alto part, countertenor Lawrence Zazzo blended his timbre effectively with the other male soloists, and complemented the passages with the soprano, Lisette Oropesa. The famous arioso in Part II, “Ach Golgotha,” had the appropriate languor. But Zazzo brought precision to the earlier numbers, such as his touching interpretation of “Buß und Reu” (No. 6), and the aria with soprano and chorus “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen—Laßt ihn, haltet, bindet nicht!” (No. 27). Zazzo was at his best in the aria at the beginning of the second part, “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin!—Wo ist denn dein Freund hingegangen” (No. 30), in which the countertenor emphasized the text’s structure and expression.
Canadian tenor Colin Ainsworth was powerfully moving in ”Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen – So schlafen unsre Sünden ein” (No. 20) for the same reasons: he gave a passionate interpretation that acknowledged the aria’s structure, coupled with an intensity that seemed a spontaneous emotional outpouring. Bach’s masterpiece benefits from this improvisational feeling.
In addition, the young baritone Tobias Greenhalgh gave his declamatory parts the precise diction they require, and his dramatic sense was a nice contrast with the often meditative tone of the other soloists. Bass-baritone Matthew Brook was also memorable, such as in the first aria near the end of Part I, “Gerne will ich mich bequemen, Kreuz und Becher anzunehmen” (No. 23), which demonstrated his rich, fluid bass register and even tone. At the end of Part II, “Am Abend, da es kühle war” (No. 65) and “Nun ist der Herr zur Ruh gebracht—Mein Jesu, gute Nacht!” (No. 67, with chorus), he set in motion a hopeful sense of resurrection. Brook’s technique made his performance seem effortless.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa showed a similar ease, particularly in “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” (No. 13), with her fine line and phrasing. In No. 49, “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben,” she was quite effective interpretatively, but her diction seemed to blur at times. This might have been the result of the acoustics, since the first chorus, which was seated several yards behind her, at times sounded indistinct. In general, the choral forces (two groups of sixteen singers each) had a balanced blend, but the diction could have been clearer. Nevertheless, they offered appropriate drama in the crowd scenes and other vocal colorings for the chorales.
In the demanding orchestral part, the sometimes chamber music-like sonorities had great delicacy, but the group was blazing in the large-scale passages. During Christ’s death, when the music depicts the earthquake that opened the tombs of deceased saints, the tone sounded sufficiently full.
Quibbles are minor, and easily remedied. SDG might consider publishing the texts in the program, or at least the list of arias. As useful as the projected translation was, for a work this familiar, the German-language text needs to be in the hands of the audience. Other problems are part of the Harris Theater, which sells some drinks in the auditorium itself before the performance and during intermission. This is a good thing, but the sounds of falling and rolling plastic bottles sometimes interrupted the efforts of the musicians. While such ambient sounds are expected at say, Ravinia, here they detracted a bit. Nevertheless, the musicians, choruses and soloists received sustained applause at the end.
James L. Zychowicz