Critique: What Would Bach Do? The LA Opera tells the story of Jesus Christ.

By Charlize Althea Garcia, March 22, 2022

After an unpredictable year, the Los Angeles Opera marked its continuation of another season. The LA Opera presents its first show in 2022 with “St. Matthieu Passion” on March 12.

“St. Matthew Passion” tells the story of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It focuses on the last two days of Christ’s life. The music was composed by Johann Sebastian Bach and the libretto, or lyrics, were composed in German by Christian Friedrich Henrici.

Bach certainly knew how to tell a story, and the crucifixion of Jesus was not an easy subject to talk about. Ironically, he never even intended this play to be an opera. Bach is notable for his involvement in theology and planned this to be performed during Holy Week preceding Easter. In this production, John Neumeierdirector of choreography, staging, sets and costumes, adopted an abstract and interpretive approach.

Photo courtesy of Kiran West

Costume and set design was minimal. There were three sets of white-colored costumes: male, female, and Christ. The choice of color and design can be interpreted in many ways. I believe the main purpose was to deter us from any form of distraction. However, it was difficult to decipher who was who: who was against Christ and who was not.

Throughout the performance, my mind was working at 50 miles an hour. Maybe that’s what kept me awake during the nearly four hour program. He was trying to understand and interpret what was happening in front of me. The Hamburg Ballet provided a delicate, somewhat confrontational presence when it came to telling such a horrific story. There was an essence of complexity in their choreography that used every part of the body. Their mindfulness of their movement was commendable. Everything told a story, even their inert ballets came and went in the aisles of the concert hall.

The choir was aural beauty. The rooted vibrancy and drama of the choir. Having both the LA Opera Chorus and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus added to that Sunday church service vibe. The chorus plays the role of narrator; it is both the harbinger and the messenger. “Kommt, ihr Töchter” or “Come ye Daughters”, the first epic chorus expressed pure concern. It served as a prelude to predestination. The final epic chorus, “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” or “In tears of sorrow, dear Lord, we leave you,” calmed the passion for the story of Christ. Desperate voices trailed off to say goodbye.

The vocals compensated for the evocation of delicacy on stage. Chorales, arias and seven-ear recitatives rooted in the Baroque era. The two tenors making their LA Opera debuts, Joshua Blue and Michael Sumuel produced a performance that delineated the previous tension of the inevitable outcome and the despondency of Christ.

The women of Christ’s life were instrumental in his story by evoking dark grace in their lamentations. Soprano Tamara Wilson and mezzo-sopranousan Graham transmitted this feminine touch. My fleeting consciousness locked away when Wilson sang the aria ‘Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben’ or ‘For love my Savior is now dying’. The air was the calm before the storm, and Wilson was like a running hand in calm waters.

A modernist approach is a delicate subject. With any art form, the saying “to each his own” can follow anything without a doubt. Although, one could say the opposite. Bach. What would Bach do? Probably not that, but that’s how art works. He plays with time because it is allowed. Whether you completely reject the era in which he was born or respect it completely, it’s all valid.

Taking a secular direction in a story that is the heart and soul of a religion can take its toll on the execution. There is no way around it. Its main objective was to make us listen to a story, a story that evoked an immense emotion in which we could all feel.

About Victoria Rothstein

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