James Conlon leads a stirring St Matthew Passion danced at LA Opera

United StatesUnited States J. S. Bach, St Matthew Passion: Singers, Dancers of The Hamburg Ballet, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, Chorus and Orchestra of LA Opera / James Conlon (conductor). Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles, 20.3.2022. (JRo)

Xue Lin with The Hamburg Ballet © Kiran West

Libretto – Picander (pen name of Christian Friedrich Henrici), with text from the Gospel of Matthew
Choreography, Staging, Set and Costumes – John Neumeier
Chorus director – Grant Gershon
LA Children’s Chorus director – Fernando Malvar-Ruiz

The Evangelist – Joshua Blue
Jesus – Michael Sumuel
Soprano soloist – Tamara Wilson
Mezzo-soprano soloist – Susan Graham
Tenor soloist – Ben Bliss
Bass soloist – Kristinn Sigmundsson

It is a risky business when singers in an opera or oratorio are transplanted from their rightful place on stage. In LA Opera’s setting of J. S. Bach’s masterwork, St Matthew Passion, choreographer John Neumeier brought his 1980 German production to Los Angeles, and the valiant, committed dancers of The Hamburg Ballet seized the stage, pushing the chorus to the back behind a black scrim and the soloists into the pit.

Los Angeles isn’t new to the mammoth undertakings of this energetic choreographer. In 2018, he tackled Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (review click here) at LAO, directing, choreographing, lighting, designing and costuming the production. Like the Gluck, the results of Bach’s Passion are mixed. Partially it is the nature of the beast – maintaining the integrity of all elements is a delicate balancing act.

From a musical perspective, LAO’s esteemed conductor James Conlon conveyed the richness, majesty and tenderness of the oratorio – the urgency and drama of the piece centered squarely in the orchestra. The continuo accompaniment of organ, viola da gamba and cello was richly colored. The chorus under Grant Gershon (with the children’s chorus directed by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz) was magnificent, though their power was unfortunately diminished by being placed so far from the orchestra.

Clocking in at 3.5 hours of dance, Neumeier’s choreography naturally had its high and low points, especially given the complexity of the religious subject matter. As I noted in my review of Bernstein Dances (review click here), seen at the Dorothy Chandler in rotation with Bach, Neumeier is at his best when at his least literal. The self-flagellating moments in the choreography – beating of breasts, slapping of torsos and limbs – were predictable and, in one instance, impinged on Susan Graham’s soaring aria, ‘Erbarme dich, mein Gott’, the most exquisite, heart-wrenching melody of the entire work. The slapping sounds emanating from principal dancer Edvin Revazov were unnecessarily distracting. Where was the comparable delicacy of ballet to harmonize with the delicacy of the music?

The physical setting was successful, conveying Neumeier’s sensitivity when it comes to set design. Towards the rear of the stage, a rectangular platform consisting of three steps served multiple purposes, and benches of differing lengths comprised the only furniture – at times becoming a crucifix, at others upended to form a prison. Oddly, there was no credit on the program for lighting, and perhaps a seasoned lighting designer would have enhanced the production.

Because the subject matter is tragic, the overall tenor of Neumeier’s dance vocabulary reflected heaviness. His decision to clad the dancers in white was lovely and uplifting but, for the most part, the choreography remained earthbound. When most successful, the dancers took flight and evoked the spiritual. Ballet is otherworldly and spiritual by its nature – the dancer soaring upwards, defying the laws of gravity. This was in evidence in the aria for tenor and chorus, ‘Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen’, danced by principals Alexandr Trusch, Aleix Martinez and Edvin Revazov. The dancing and the elegant singing of tenor Ben Bliss were at one with each other – an interplay of art forms that allowed breathing space for both.

John Neumeier’s St Matthew Passion © Kiran West

Much of the choreography featured flexed feet, outstretched arms with splayed fingers, yoga-like poses, stuttering legs and trembling bodies. Dances for the women were often replete with hands in prayer position pointing downward combined with low kicks of flexed feet, which put me in mind of stricken birds. In one section, hands were clasped and arms made a stirring motion, possibly alluding to the domestic.

As one would expect, the male dancers as the apostles were more central to the dance than the majority of female disciples. An exception to this was Xue Lin, who portrayed the woman anointing Jesus with precious ointment. As Jesus, dancer Marc Jubete was mesmerizing and convincing (and made even more heroic by Neumeier’s inclusion of two statuesque guardians who shadowed him throughout the ballet). In a pas de deux with Lin to the beautifully plangent ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’, sung by gifted soprano Tamara Wilson, the pair embodied the spirituality of Bach’s conception.

Another highlight was ‘So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen’, sung by Graham and Wilson. A transcendent moment, it was difficult to watch the onstage movement, and I preferred to rest my eyes on the singers.

Along with Graham, Wilson and Bliss, Michael J. Hawk was a notable soloist. The extraordinary singing of Joshua Blue as the Evangelist and Michael Sumuel as Jesus were the lynchpin of the production. Blue’s recitative narration was a lyrical tour-de-force, and Sumuel’s potent and honeyed baritone added color and texture.

Bach’s haunting music remains foremost in my mind, but the image of the Hamburg Ballet dancers circling the stage is not one I will soon forget. In spite of the production’s shortcomings, it was a remarkable experience.

Jane Rosenberg

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