Bach: St Matthew Passion

Bach: St Matthew Passion
English Touring Opera
Temple Church, London. 18 October 2018

English Touring Opera (ETO) is an ambitious organisation that run extensive annual tours of staged operas around the UK, alongside one-off projects like their current adaptation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. They start their tours in London, usually at the Hackney Empire, where they have just staged Radamisto and a triple-bill of Dido and Aeneas, Carissimi’s Jonas, and Gesualdo madrigals. Details of their current tour can be found here. For the Matthew Passion, as in previous such projects, they enrol local amateur choirs, community groups, and schools. For their London performance, these were the Collegium Musicum of London Chamber Choir (whose musical director is assistant organist at The Temple Church) and an almost exclusively female flock of children from the Holy Trinity and Saint Silas Church of England Primary School in Camden. The orchestra was the professional period instrument Old Street Band.

It was the Matthew Passion, but not as we know it. The expected double choir and orchestra were reduced to one, the only real instrumental concession being the use of two key violin soloists (Naomi Burrell and Jean Paterson) on opposite sides of the 16-strong orchestra. The chorales were sung in English, in new translations by a variety of people, some well known, most not, none of which seemed all that different from the usual translations of the original German. The Primary School children joined in with the choir for several of these chorales, moving with impressive ease from their side seats into a position in the central aisle of the church. The Temple Church is not an easy church to perform in.

The original circular Templar church had what looks like a nave added to it, although it is, in fact, a large choir, with seating arranged collegiate fashion, facing into a central aisle. The floor of the Templar bit is full of dead Templars, or, at least, their impressive memorials. The choir and orchestra were positioned at the junction between the older and the newer bit. Rather complex seating arrangements meant that many people had a restricted view of the orchestra and choir, although roving soloists solved some of the visibility problems, albeit alongside added several other issues of their own.

One major departure from convention was having several singers sharing the role of the Evangelist, sometimes in duet adding to the community spirit of the occasion, but making textural following tricky. Occasionally Frederick Long’s Christus was joined by alto Katie Bray, both very impressive singers, as was the principal Evangelist, Richard Dowling. Two of the vocal soloist parts are shared between two singers during the tour. The programme didn’t specify who was who, but I’m pretty certain that Ellie Laugharne and Benjamin Williamson were the soprano and countertenor soloists, who along with second bass Andrew Slater (singing Pilate, Judas, and  Caiaphas) made important contributions. The second tenor singer had an alarmingly strong vibrato that I considered completely unstylistic for the music of this period. The soloists moved about the large space, often during an aria, giving everybody a chance to see and hear them, albeit perhaps briefly. The choir were impressive, their shout of Barrabam giving the otherwise rather restrained the Holy Trinity and Saint Silas children the chance to have an impressive yell from their seats.

Jonathan Peter Kenny has a distractingly flamboyant conducting style, which included a lot of rather aggressive pointing: not, perhaps, the best way to inspire seven to eleven-year-old children or, indeed, to reflect the mood of a Passion setting where the focus should perhaps be on more elevated things than the theatrical antics of the conductor. It was clearly not easy to keep everything together, and there were times when I wondered how much rehearsal time had been allocated. The Old Street Band, made up of several of the usual suspects of the early instrument world,  impressed.

This was an ambitious project, as is the whole of the ETO’s annual programme. It was certainly worth doing, with all its foibles, but I am not convinced that this will prove to be the finest way to present Bach Passions.