The Hamburg Ballet approaches Bach and Bernstein with rich imagery and movement

A churchman, not a theatre, Bach did not write for dance. But the dance was at its core. His instrumental suites, partitas and concertos, made of dance forms, may include some of the most profound music by this most profound composer.

Bach did not write an opera either. Yet drama was also at its core. His Sacred Cantatas and His Passions, and none more than the “St. Matthew Passion,” include some of the deepest dramas of this most profound composer.

Dancing to Bach comes naturally, as Jerome Robbins, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and many others have lovingly demonstrated. Staging Bach does not come so naturally. But Peter Sellars, in particular, has powerfully proven that it can be not only possible but essential.

In 1980, seven years after becoming director of the Hamburg Ballet, American choreographer John Neumeier staged the “St. Matthew Passion” as a play of medieval balletic passion in the city’s St. Michael’s Church , then brought her to the opera. By 1983, he was considered avant-garde enough for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. By 2005, it had become a classic that suited the glitzy festival in Baden-Baden perfectly.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Two opera singers dressed in black.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Today, four decades after the ballet’s premiere but still rarely seen outside of Hamburg, “St. Matthew Passion” reached the Los Angeles Opera, raising the question of where dance, sacred passion and opera to cut. To make matters even more intriguing, Dance at the Music Center has invited Hamburg Ballet to bring their “Bernstein Dances” to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for two additional evenings.

Bernstein, it turns out, performed and recorded Bach’s Passion with the New York Philharmonic in 1962 in an approach that was considered controversial then and still is. Bernstein cut Bach to enhance the theatricality of the Passion and interpreted the German text into English. He treated the recitative narration of Christ’s last days as an inevitably living drama. He brought to the great choirs and solemn chorales of Bach the grandeur of the Greek choirs. It sparked raw lyrical passion in introspective tunes rather than ecclesiastical passion.

Bernstein questioned everything. The “St. Matthew” was for him a living, breathing, human theater. But its spiritual essence also penetrated Bernstein’s skin. This led to his direct confrontation with God in his Third Symphony, written following the assassination of Kennedy, then in his musically and spiritually transgressive “Mass” of 1972.

Neumeier doesn’t exactly put it all together. “Bernstein Dances” follows Bernstein’s career from his early dances and Broadway shows to “Mass,” but only his “A Simple Song” and “Meditation 2” look at Bernstein’s spiritual side. Along with show tunes and small accessory pieces for piano, the main orchestral music consists of the Violin Concerto, “Serenade After Plato’s ‘Symposium'”, and dances from “West Side Story”.

There are big onstage projections of Bernstein, a famous bandleader with an extravagant feeling, something that company bandleader Garrett Keast aggressively tries to match with a pit orchestra.

For “St. Matthew,” James Conlon more respectfully ⁠ – and more sensibly ⁠ – conducts the LA Opera Orchestra and Chorus with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The vocal soloists come from the world of opera but sing from the pit.

The dancers with arms raised and hands joined form an undulating pattern.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Two dancers support a third, arms perpendicular.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Neumeier is more impertinent with Bernstein, more stylized with Bach; in “Passion”, its dancers, dressed in pristine white, create images of elegantly considered classical movement. Bach’s marvelous contrapuntal complexity, full of numerical symbolism and mathematical purity, is reflected on stage with the dancers assuming architectural backdrops of great beauty.

In both cases, attempts at storytelling work less well. Bernstein sits at his piano, tormented, ecstatic and in between, dreaming of dances coming to life. In the blink of an eye or you’ll miss it, Bernstein throws himself on the piano, arms outstretched as if crucified on the keyboard. Better to blink.

The incompatible difference between “Bernstein” and “St. Matthew” is the use of music, the main subject of both. In one, there is a hodgepodge of Bernsteinian flair with two singers and a pianist on stage. , the atmosphere, the method and the energy always varied. In “St. Matthew”, the music seems less free. The very constraints of the dance oblige the dancers to learn the choreography on certain tempos. Everything must adapt to the movement on stage.

The music requires less expression to leave more room for dance. This robs the singers of personality, who remain in the pit, hidden from many in the audience. In the March 12 opener, Susan Graham came closest to capturing a palpable depth of sentiment in the fervent alto aria, “Erbarme Dich” (Have mercy). Ben Bliss has proven to be a penetrating tenor through it all. But Kristinn Sigmundsson, a worthy Jesus on recording, floundered as bass soloist. Soprano Tamara Wilson seemed lost in the first part of the long Passion, but rose to the occasion in the second.

In the recitatives, in which the evangelist recounts the Passion and Jesus exclaims in the first person (Joshua Blue and Michael Sumuel, respectively), the singers exploded to make their presence felt if not seen. Nothing can hold back the opera’s magnificent chorus, though placing it behind a scrim in the back, away from Conlon and the orchestra in the pit, reduced its effectiveness.

A line of kneeling men, their faces raised to the sky.

Dancers of the Hamburg Ballet.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

A line of male dancers raise their arms skyward.

The dancers perform as part of “St. Matthieu Passion.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

All this weighs heavily on the shoulders of the dancers. Ironically for opera, anyway, they’re more emotionally effective when they’re less expressive. As they move with Bach-led grace, they might make you think they were led by God, and the Passion takes on a graceful spirituality.

But Neumeier’s attempts at symbolism and storytelling can also achieve the unfortunate opposite. The dancers are not at their best when they are shown, in a scene, as chained or held to maintain a holy disposition while posed as if on the cross. Jesus seated cross-legged like the meditating Buddha is, however, an interesting alternative. The overturned pews, the versatile properties of the main stage that hold the character of Jesus captive, make him feel like he’s in a phone booth calling heaven. The thumping and heckling at the death of Jesus has less heart-rending power than Bach’s music.

Jesus can claim that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. For Neumeier, the flesh is never weak and the spirit is not always willing.

And this is perhaps the great secret of the choreographer. For all his mixed messages, Neumeier creates a ritual that, over four hours, turns into a spectacle of incessant and rich images and movements. Dancers with the stamina and grace to sustain slowly become agents of wonder. With other performances, musicians can feel a bit freer.

Fight Neumeier if you must. Gripe all you like that a Bach Passion has no place on the lyrical stage. Bach wins. This “St. Matthew” ends up being special when he has a right to be and, miraculously, when he isn’t. St. Lenny doesn’t get off so easily.

‘St. Matthew Passion’ and ‘Bernstein Dances’

Or: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 S. Grand Ave., LA

When: “Bernstein Dances,” 7:30 p.m. March 19; “St. Matthew Passion”, 2:20 p.m. and March 27, 7:30 p.m. March 23 and 26

Tickets: “Bernstein,” $38 to $138; “St. Matthew,” $19-$292

Information: musiccenter.org, (213) 972-0711

About Victoria Rothstein

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