Saturday 14 July 2007

St Matthew Passion at Glyndebourne

Or should that be Beslan? As the programme note makes explicit, and the set would, even if it didn't, this staging of Bach's great oratorio in the aftermath of a school massacre is not subtly so. Of course, to a purist, any staging of this work is a mistake, but given it is so intensely dramatic, should it be? Certainly many of the less than favourable reviews have placed the blame on Beslan simply not being the right setting. I'm not sure I agree: the idea of a troupe of performers giving the work, in which the grieving parents get caught up, is not, inherently, silly.

So does it work here at Glyndebourne? Things don't get off to a good start as Richard Egarr strides to the podium, stands there, silence descends and continues to stand in silence for an inordinately long time before the music beings. Things do not altogether improve. The initial fading up of the stage lighting is so jerky I cannot imagine it wasn't deliberately so (or else, that the lighting operator isn't feeling rather ashamed), but I can't for the life of me see why you'd want that.

But the real problems come in the silliness of the execution of the production. There are moments when things are taken overly literally: the bride flouncing onto the stage at the start, but in a manner which is almost comical. I should note here that, as she 'explains' in an insert to her programme note, the director has split the soprano role in two. Though, reading it, that line from the dedication to Byron's Don Juan "I wish he would explain his explanation" is called to mind.

It gets worse. Cups of sand (or possibly salt, or sugar, it's hard to tell) are poured over the table or stage. It becomes a running theme (though quite what it is supposed to represent was never clear to any of us). Similarly, at the last supper, Jesus's glass is filled with water, then overfilled, then overflows. Again, any meaning was lost to me. The oddities continue, apparently productions of anything these days must have fire, but when the bowl on the table erupted I half expected a waiter come forth and offer Jesus crepes.

When we made it to Garden of Gethsemane it got worse. The change of scene was achieved by unrolling a strip of turf onto the table. If the water and the sand came close to provoking an outburst of the giggles, it was only with superhuman control that I was able to prevent it here.

But of course, a terrible production should be bearable, this music is surely so wonderful that not even this silliness can cripple it. It's an interesting question, and a difficult one to answer since this was not a night to remember musically. Egarr's conducting was lacklustre to put it mildly. He did so from the keyboard (I think a clavichord was used rather than a harpsichord). Frankly, I think given his lack of operatic experience, to divide his attentions so was a mistake. He seemed to often be concentrating all his attention on the left side of the orchestra, and this was reflected sonically. He also was rather sluggish. Of course, if you're Richter you can get away with that. But with a period band like the OAE it isn't the same. As a result, the orchestra for the most part sounded rather off and well below their usual standards.

Above the pit, things fared worse. The chorus (the parents) sat on the left, facing across the stage. They had clearly been directed by Katie Mitchell to look at their librettos the whole time. The result was a shockingly poor choral sound. Similarly, when the members of the chorus were drawn out by the 'actors' to take solo parts, they sing hesitantly. This would have been okay once or twice at the very start, but the point of such a production must surely be for them to become caught up and sing wonderfully. Directing people to sing badly is, to put it bluntly, insane, and an insult to your audience.

A conductor with any sense would have told her that having your singers constantly looking down and away from the audience simply wouldn't do. Perhaps a kind explanation is that, in his inexperience he was unable to do this and his mounting dejection at the situation led to his lacklustre reading. Fair enough, you might say, but at this level that isn't really acceptable, this is not some operatic backwater (and certainly isn't priced as such). The applause that greeted the interval was brief and polite. Very polite.

So, to the interval. Frankly, part of the point of the event.And certainly the production gave us plenty to talk about, not always the case when all you can think to say are things like 'sublime' and 'magical'. The weather held (doubtless ensured by our last minute switch to the restaurant).

There was a little improvement in the second half. The choir found a measure of passion when singing "Jesus, tell us who hit you". Sadly, such brief and infrequent moments only highlighted how inadequate the rest of the endeavour was. The pouring of salt or sand, or whatever it was, returned with a vengeance. For the first time too we got an attempt at applause after an aria (well, one person clapped about twice before realising they were alone), markedly, and actually, blessed in my view, below par for this festival.

But again and again there was silliness. At one point a member of the chorus departed the stage with incredible energy, only the wander back in a few moments later. The table was thrown over in another fit of pique. Pilate seemed to be enjoying a gourmet meal of oysters for some reason. Then there was the soprano, first redoing her hair (when the words on the surtitles implied anything but), the fainting in passion, then getting rather friendlier with Jesus than the script would seem to imply. Shortly after came the loud bang of the first person in the audience having had enough. I was more puzzled about that than I often am, since say what you may, it certainly wasn't dull.

Indeed, the fault was often that it was too busy. Why, for example, did Jesus need to constantly be changing his tuxedo (or rather having it changed for him by the two women - whose role was not often clear - in the first half they arrested him, rather than logically using the whole chorus, then sang in speculation as to what might have happened to him)? Was it really necessary to torture him quite so maniacally, dunking his head over and over in a bowl of water? When this was followed by sand/salt being poured over his head, it was very nearly too much for me. And the oddities kept coming. The script specified a reed in his hand, a crown of thorns and purple robe. For some reason the director had decided the reed should be included but none of the rest.

The instrumental highlight of the evening came from the solo cello who was brought onto the stage (though complimented by the silliness of one of the sopranos pretending to play the piano). However, this didn't really last, as the tone of the staging and Egarr's conducting meant I really half expected them to lurch into a rendition of 'Always look on the bright side of life'.

In some ways that might almost have been better. Did the women need to climb on the table or flounce around pretending to be waltzing with imaginary partners, as if their hoping to land a role in an American teen movie? Did the salt/sand need now to cascade from above? Did we really need quite so much group hugging (actually, the audience could probably do with the counselling here)? Did Jesus really need to wail quite like that (and couldn't his death have had slightly more drama)? And if he's dead, should he not stay dead rather than being up on his feet again almost immediately? Why does everyone stand up when the word exhort the opposite?

The musical climax was spoilt by yet more pointless fire, and candles. Yet surely the music here is, if performed properly, a revelation all by itself. It doesn't need such trickery to make is special. Hilarity almost ensued again in the closing moments as the surviving child of the massacre is further abused by being dressed up as an angel, paraded about and almost set alight (as his wings are placed perilously close to those too many candles).

Ultimately, this is a performance that fails comprehensively, both musically and dramatically. Well, almost. One should always try to finish on a positive note, and there is a very strong one here: Mark Padmore. As the evangelist he puts everyone else involved to shame. His voice is clear, powerful and carries perfectly no matter which way he is facing. And there is drama and passion. Would that he had been better supported by everyone else. It would be good to hear him in a reading surrounded by talents on a par with his own.

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