Paul Armin Edelmann, center, portrays Jesus in a rehearsal of Bach's "St. John Passion" at Heinz Hall. The PSO's semi-staged production of the monumental work, directed by Sam Helfrich and conducted by Manfred Honeck, opened Friday night.
Music director Manfred Honeck conducted Bach's "St. John Passion" Friday night at Heinz Hall.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bach’s “St. John Passion” is many things. It is time-specific and timeless, abstract and concrete, spiritual and universal, peaceful and violent. Is it now an opera, too?
On Friday, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and music director Manfred Honeck offered an ambitious semi-staged production of the oratorio at Heinz Hall that made a possible case for that argument.
It’s worth taking some time just to describe what was happening on stage. Bach’s “St. John Passion” chronicles the events leading up to and including Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, as told in the Gospel of John.
With instrumental music, choral sections, recitatives and arias, Bach’s work already has a lot going on. Then, the PSO dramatized it. The text is inherently theatrical, and there is some precedent to staging Bach’s Passions, most notably in collaborations between the Berlin Philharmonic and director Peter Sellars. Tasked with this project was Sam Helfrich, who steered Handel’s “Messiah” at Heinz Hall in 2011 and will be back next season to offer Haydn’s “The Creation.”
Mr. Helfrich’s staging activated the text in ways that were dateless and others, quite modern. We witnessed the last supper scene, a breakup, a group of computer-using loners at Starbucks and a shooting. A small group of instrumentalists, including two musicians from early-music group Chatham Baroque, formed a triangle on stage, while most of the action took place between two quasi-sets on either side. The Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh anchored the action from the back.
Much of the staging, particularly during Part I, merely served to activate the text, and that alone was compelling. Choristers dressed in black provided commentary, while other singers in colorful street clothes participated in the action — a neat way to distinguish between Bach’s abstract and empirical text.
But at its best, Mr. Helfrich’s staging did more than just clarify what was happening. On a few occasions, the characters engaged in slow-motion movements that turned the libretto into expressions of their interior feelings. It seemed to convey that real-life feeling when thought freezes and expands seemingly banal moments. The two halves of the stage acted as separate dramatic forces and, at their most powerful, were in dialogue with each other. Part II of the work, which came after the intermission, took more risks with the staging and placed it in a modern context. (Although one scene, a Steelers watch party, was a bit corny.)
The cast of 10 guest vocalists generally enhanced the performance musically and dramatically — particularly the dark, russet voice of Paul Armin Edelmann (Jesus), the agile, resonant countertenor of Andrey Nemzer and the polished depth of Alexander Elliott (Pilate). Mr. Honeck successfully managed this complicated ship, drawing out a rich, dynamic sound from the small orchestra and chorus. The Mendelssohn Choir had a multifaceted character and flexible range despite a few imprecise entrances.
Concert repeats 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750.
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