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Staging Bach's "St. Matthew Passion"

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 16, 2011 - 1:17:19 AM in news_2011

Tenor Shawn Mlynek

As one of the towering works in Western music, Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” is performed regularly at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

It was performed in 2006, 2000, 1996, 1989 . . . about every four to six years, including a 1970 “St. Matthew” with CCM alumna Kathleen Battle singing the soprano aria  Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben, said Earl Rivers, director of choral studies at CCM.

Bach’s 1727 setting of the Passion according to St. Matthew will be performed again at 1:30 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 20) in St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, with Rivers conducting the CCM Chamber Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra and Cincinnati Children’s Choir.  CCM faculty artist (baritone) William McGraw will sing Jesus.

However, this time it will be staged.

There have been stagings of the “St. Matthew Passion” in London, Berlin and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.  Still it is a very rare bird, and CCM’s production is believed to be the first in the Midwestern United States.

Rivers approached opera department head Robin Guarino and distinguished-artist-in-residence Nicholas Muni about the idea “a couple of years ago,” he said.   “Once they blessed it, it had legs.”  Since Guarino and Muni had prior commitments, Jennifer Williams, an artist diploma student in opera directing, was selected to direct it.

This “Passion” will also have two Evangelists instead of one.  “When two of the auditioners emerged as very strong, I said to Jennifer and the voice faculty ‘What if we used two Evangelists, one in part one and one in part two?  She thought about it for a week and said ‘What if we divided them by scenes?’”

And so the creative juices began to flow.  “When we divided the Evangelist into different scenes, it turned out that one Evangelist has very passionate, emotive music, almost bombastic, and the other focused a lot on violence and being arrested and betrayed,” said Williams.  “What that led us to was that one Evangelist became an inmate on death row.  He begins as the anti-Evangelist and through the course of the performance becomes the Evangelist.  The other Evangelist begins as an Evangelist, an American televangelist, and begins to question how he expresses his faith.”

The Evangelists will be sung by tenors Ian McEuen and Shawn Mlynek, both second-year graduate students at CCM.  Both will wear costumes fitted to their characters:  the televangelist (McEuen)  a grey suit and clerical collar, the convict (Milynek) an orange prison jumpsuit.

As for Jesus, “he was a revolutionary in his time and certainly today,” said Williams.  “To situate him in that original context, we have him in white robes that are not too dissimilar from the gorgeous mosaic that’s upstage from the action at St. Peter in Chains.  But the shape of his garments underneath the robe is a bit more 21st century.  He’s wearing pants, for example, instead of a more flowing kind of thing.”

The stage area at the front of the church will be extended and risers added both “to heighten the presence of the chorus and thrust forward the actors, Williams said.   “Regarding props, we have just enough to suggest the different spaces.  The beautiful thing about St. Peter in Chains is that there are these gorgeous pulpits, so we’ll have some action, especially for the televangelist, using that.”

For the convict, there will be an electric chair.  “Our approach is to focus on developing very specific images, to use items with more meaning rather than adding extraneous things.  In the end, the most powerful aspect of the piece is the music,” she said.

The Philharmonia Orchestra will be about 36 players, said Rivers.  “Manami White (baroque violinist) has coached the violins on baroque style.  We pretty much take all of the vibrato out of the sound.  The same with the Chamber Choir.  I’ve told them, with all the chorales, the very first note of each phrase has to be straight.  Let it warm up and then the cadence (end) has to be straight.”

The chorus will be “a reflection, a mirror image of our 2011 audience, so they’re in 21st-century garb,” said Williams.  “They are very active players.  They remain on risers, but their actions are often punctuated with hand gestures and rising and sitting.”  Several characters in the Passion story emerge from the chorus (Peter, Pilate) as do the singers who perform Bach’s contemplative arias.

What CCM is doing with the “St. Matthew Passion” is very similar to what Bach himself did, Williams noted.  “Bach updated the story to the 18th century in many ways.  He enhanced the story to make it more immediate for his audiences.  Part of our approach has been to take a page from Bach’s book to make it more immediate for our 2011 Cincinnati audience.”

Engaging the audience is a primary concern for the music industry today, Rivers said.  “Speaking from the perspective of Chorus America, I can tell you that the buzz at every bar and every session is how do we reach new audiences?  It always comes down to technology, dance, video, how we embrace those elements.  We are doing that with this production.  We are opening the box.  People who know the piece are going to be startled and, I hope, pleased.  Those who are engaged for the first time are going to see it through a completely different lens.”

Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” will be performed by the CCM Chamber Choir, Philharmonia Orchestra and Cincinnati Children’s Choir led by Earl Rivers at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 20 in St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, 8th and Plum Streets downtown.   Baritone William McGraw will sing Jesus, with tenors Ian McEuen and Shawn Mlynek as the Evangelist.  Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 the day of the concert, $5 for non-UC students, UC students free.  Call the CCM box office at (513) 556-4183, or online at ccm.uc.edu