Passion Play: Johannes-Passion from the Théâtre du Châtelet

Bach – Johannes-Passion

Jesus Benjamin Appl
Joshua Ellicott
Lenneke Ruiten
Carlos Mena
Robert Murray
Bass / Pilatus
Andreas Wolf
Magd Céline Boudineau
Knecht Joseph Ben Zakoun
Petrus Arnaud Keller

Chœur de Paris, Les Talens Lyriques / Philippe Pierlot.
Stage director – Calixto Bieito.  Video director – François Roussillon.

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, France.  May 10th & 11th, 2021.  Streamed via Operavision.

This revival of Calixto Bieito’s staging of the Johannes-Passion, here revived by Lucia Astigarraga, was to have been performed at the Théâtre du Châtelet last season.  Delayed by the plague, the theatre was finally able to mount it this past May, without an audience, but captured for the cameras of Operavision, where it will be available to view for the next six months. 

Photo: © Thomas Amouroux

In an illuminating interview on the Operavision production page, Bieito states that he sees the Passion less as a religious work, but one that feeds into humanity’s constant need to illuminate itself through storytelling.  He also mentions, how very often, entire towns will mount a re-telling of the passion story, the whole community coming together to bring this narrative to life.  This element of community is brought home by the presence of the forty-four amateur singers of the Chœur de Paris.  Their commitment is remarkable – although singing with masks, their physicality was undimmed, every single chorister throwing themselves into the demands of the production.  Given the sanitary situation in the French republic at the time of filming, their bravery in doing so is absolutely inspirational.  As an exceptional director of choruses, Bieito, together with Astigarraga, bring home how this crowd could be any of us.  The evening begins with the choristers emerging from the where the audience would sit, as if ordinary people becoming part of an extraordinary tale.  For the next two hours, they become a corporate body desperate for salvation, a heaving mob ready to take revenge, or individuals partaking in a mysterious ritual of death and resurrection framed around ‘Es ist vollbracht’.  The set (Aida-Leonor Guardia), a simple concert shell, with the players of Les Talens Lyriques in the middle, the chorus and principals using the full area of the stage to perform, becomes a seemingly mundane setting for extraordinary storytelling. 

Photo: © Thomas Amouroux

Bieito gives us a reading that is reflective of his own deep humanity.  He doesn’t shy away from showing us the contradictions in human nature.  While there are of course named characters, not least the central role of Jesus, Bieito populates the stage with others who may be nameless, but have recognizably human traits.  The soprano is the only woman principal on stage and through her, Bieito demonstrates the complexities of man’s relations to women.  Initially, we see her and Jesus’s reaction to each other as being rather sexualized.  Later, she appears to be rough handled by a group of men, including Pilatus, while Jesus joins in.  The tenor sings of god’s grace after sinning, yet isn’t afraid to steal Jesus’s shoes after his death.  There’s a complexity to the humanity here, juxtaposed with the piety and the mourning, that I found incredibly convincing.  Similarly, the way that the crowd seemed to share in the resurrection as if desperately trying to believe in a hereafter, was deeply haunting.  There was a desperation in the soprano and Pilatus’s actions as the piece came to a close, placing stones on Jesus’s grave as if trying to compensate for being responsible for being part of a man’s death.  In creating this multifaceted world of complex humanity, Bieito also manages to make the text’s anti-Semitism less impactful that it can often seem.  This is the work of a master director.

Photo: © Thomas Amouroux

As committed, as their choral counterparts, the principals also gave performances of extreme dedication.  Benjamin Appl managed to create a fully-rounded character through his singing of the recitatives and his physical engagement with the production.  He created a haunting stage presence not only through his engagement with his cast mates, but also through his vocalism.  His baritone has a slightly grainy edge, although the bottom is firm, which gave his singing an other-worldly quality.  Particularly compared to Andreas Wolf’s fuller, burnished tone.  Wolf sang his music handsomely with an attractive fullness and warmth of tone.  Joshua Ellicott was an impassioned Evangelist, spitting out the text where required, using it to colour the line, never afraid to use the language to create mood – from neutrality, to pain, to resolution.  Robert Murray sang his music with admirable mellifluousness and an easy legato, again with text extremely clear.  Carlos Mena gave an introspective reading of ‘Es ist vollbracht’, his claret-toned countertenor easily produced, the registers integrated.  Lenneke Ruiten inspired respect for her unflinching physicality, particularly in a very surprising final tableau – no spoilers – and sang her music with crystalline tone and selective use of vibrato.

Photo: © Thomas Amouroux

Les Talens Lyriques played with assurance for Philippe Pierlot.  The strings were true in intonation throughout, with winds ideally piquant within the texture.  Pierlot himself played the gamba solo with eloquence.  His tempi were sensible and he kept control over his disparate forces, particularly with the chorus singing from various positions around the set and in various stages of physical activity.  That said, I did long for a little more dramatic pushing ahead in the opening chorus, which felt a bit placid – but this is a small thing.  The chorus, superbly prepared by Till Aly, sang with great dedication, every single individual poured their heart into everything they sang.

Photo: © Thomas Amouroux

This is a great piece of music theatre, one that anyone who loves the magic that happens when great music and theatre come together will need to see.  Bieito gives us an insight into the complexity of the human condition, of the need for coming together to enact a ritual, and the centrality of storytelling in our need to understand the world around us.  The sheer devotion of everyone involved in this production to executing his vision and telling this story is staggering.  Musically, it has so much to offer.  A must see.

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