A Powerful St. John Passion from John Nelson

United StatesUnited States  Bach, St. John Passion: Soloists, Chicago Bach Choir, Chicago Bach Orchestra, John Nelson (conductor), Harris Theater, Chicago. 20.3.2014 (JLZ)

Evangelist: Nicholas Phan
Jesus: Stephen Morscheck
Soprano: Lisette Oropesa
Countertenor (Alto): Lawrence Zazzo
Tenor: John Tessier
Bass-baritone: Matthew Brook

Following its 2014 performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Chicago Bach Choir and Chicago Bach Orchestra presented the St. John Passion, with John Nelson again conducting and using the leaner 1724 version, which relies heavily on the use of recitative and arioso to convey the narrative. With a simple cross hanging above the stage, the Harris Theater made a stark venue, emphasizing solemnity and quiet dignity.

 Overall the simplicity allowed the audience to focus on the music, which amplifies the text from John’s Gospel with reflective points commenting on the ancient story. The chorales that intersect the recitative were well prepared, with carefully voiced textures and clear diction. Lauren Zazzo’s subtle interpretation of the aria “Von den Stricken” was particularly effective because of the fluid line that transcended Bach’s score—a welcome contrast to the more declamatory music that surrounds it. A similar moment followed with the soprano aria “Ich folge dir,” sung by Lisette Oropesa. Though her lyricism was welcome, it was unfortunate that the text was not always clear (which may be partially due to the acoustics which can be uneven in the Harris Theater).

 The other soloists were effective, with John Tessier particularly strong. He gave an intense reading of the aria “Ach, mein Sinn” in the first part and the impassioned “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” in the second. Tessier also brought out the image of the tortured Savior, complementing the preceding bass aria “Betrachte, meine Seel” that Matthew Brook delivered with similar intensity. Brook was freer later in the second part, when he offered from memory the aria “Eilt, ihr,” which serves as commentary on the image of Jesus hanging from the cross. Here, Brook was somewhat romantic in his interpretation, matching Nicholas Plan’s extremely emotional reading of the Evangelist. Phan was clearly involved, but the heightened reading of short texts sometimes took way from the narrative, with almost every utterance colored with intense dynamics or rendered with free rhythms.

 The Chicago Bach Choir, led by Donald Nally, had remarkable diction and well-shaped tone. In the chorales, the chorus followed Nelson as if they were a single entity, and uniformly vivid, as with “Wir haben ein Gesetz,” with the fugal entries appropriately precise. The penultimate chorus, “Ruht wohl,” had rich textures and reverent tone that made a fine conclusion.

 As a whole, this performance gave audience the opportunity to hear Bach’s starker Passion in a powerful interpretation; Nelson’s commitment to the music was always evident. The period-informed orchestra had a strong role, with well-rehearsed strings, and the lower voices enhanced by the Craig Trompeter’s outstanding gamba playing. Trompeter’s efforts were particularly effective in the alto aria “Es ist vollbracht.” While the woodwinds were equally reliable, they sometimes overbalanced the vocal lines, which might not have been as evident onstage as it was in the theater, where the sounds blended with mixed results. All in all, though, this was an estimable performance, appropriately offered in the middle of Lent, before the celebration of Easter.

 James L. Zychowicz



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