CCM's Staged "St. Matthew Passion" Monumental, Moving

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Nov 21, 2011 - 11:12:38 AM in reviews

Bsch, "St. Matthew Passion," St. Peter in Chains Cathedral (William McGraw, Jesus, center in white)

Tinker with Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion?”


Think again. Sunday afternoon (Nov. 20) at St. Peter in Chains Cathedral, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music proved that it is possible to stage Bach’s monumental work with complete dignity and success.  CCM is not the first to have done so (the Berlin Philharmonic, Brooklyn Academy of Music, among others, were there first), but CCM’s production, believed to be the first in the Midwest United States, gave the music a powerful new dimension.

Conducted by Earl Rivers, director of choral studies at CCM, and directed by Jennifer Williams, graduate student in opera stage direction, the three-hour production flew by.  It was a complex undertaking, with a multitude of elements to consider, first and foremost the music.  The 45-member Philharmonia Chamber Orchestra  became two orchestras, which sat facing each other in the chancel of the Cathedral.  The 40-member CCM Chamber Choir sat behind them on risers.  The Bel Canto Choir of Cincinnati Children’s Choir sang from the gallery overlooking the chancel.

The staging took full advantage of the Cathedral.  Not only did the ensembles perform beneath the golden mosaic of Christ above the altar, but both pulpits were used by characters in the drama.  Set pieces included an electric chair (yes), a spotlight manipulated by the actors (though sometimes with difficulty) and video equipment.  Costuming was ingenious.  To give the characters a 2011 look, most wore street clothes.

There were two Evangelists instead of one.  Tenors Ian McEuen and Shawn Mlynek shared the role by creating two characters:  a televangelist in grey jacket and clerical collar and a convict on Ohio’s death row, who wore orange prison garb.  McGraw as Jesus was dressed in white, with a robe similar to that worn by Christ in the Cathedral mosaic over white pants.  Pilate (bass John McCarthy) wore suit and red tie, with three large campaign buttons on his chest.  Choir members were robed in white with red stoles. Key colors were red for sin and white for holiness.

To aid listeners, the German text was projected in English onto a screen behind the stage (a wise move that kept eyes on the performance instead of the program book).

The Cathedral, sometimes problematic with its resonant acoustics, was downright hospitable, and the music had warmth, definition and clarity in addition to just the right amount of echo.  Credit Rivers for preparing his ensembles for the acoustical challenge.  Both the choir and the orchestral strings performed with selective or no vibrato, making for clean lines and pure tone.  (The vocal and instrumental soloists were free in their expression.)   There were aria and character soloists (19, including Jesus and the Evangelist), all uniformly excellent.

It got off to a gripping start, with the Convict (Mlynek) being strapped into the electric chair during the opening chorus Kommt, ihr Tõchter (“Come, ye daughters”).  When offered the last rites, he spit into the priest's hand.  The Televangelist (McEuen) ascended the left pulpit, checked his makeup and posed for the cameras in front of him. 

The lines were drawn from there, as the Convict eased out of the chair, found a Bible and began reading it.  He and the Televangelist narrated and participated dramatically in the scenes that followed.  Gradually, each experienced his own conversion.  The stage action was ingeniously interwoven with the music to give the Passion contemporary resonance.  Following Jesus’ trial and condemnation by the priests, for example, one of the singers tore off the Televangelist's jacket and clerical collar.

The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane was extremely powerful, both musically and dramatically.  McGraw was riveting as he knelt and prayed in agony.  One of the Apostles led the Televangelist into the group, where he joined them in denouncing Judas.  The Apostles fled offstage to the shock and dismay of the Evangelists.  The Convict reached out and touched Jesus as the Chorus and Children’s Choir sang the wrenching O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross (“O humankind, thy heavy sin lament”).

Countertenor Eric Jurenas opened part two with the heartrending aria Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin (“Alas, now is my Jesus gone”).  Micah Fusselman shone on viola da gamba in the tenor aria Geduld (“Patience”), sung affectingly by Ian José Ramirez.  The Televangelist yanked Peter (Christopher Brandon Morales) away as he denied Jesus for the third time.  For the great aria, Erbarme Dich (“Forgive me”), beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Wakefield, violinist Yabling Tan, concertmaster of orchestra I, came to the front of the stage to perform the poignant violin solo.

Dan Wang, concertmaster of orchestra II, did the solo honors in the aria, Get mir meinem Jesus wieder (“Give me back my Jesus”), sung by baritone Wesley Brax.  In a brilliant touch, the Convict represented Barabbas.  The soprano aria  Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben ("For love will my Saviour die"), sung by Abigail Santos Villalobos with oboe d’amore and flute, bathed the Cathedral in lustrous sound.  And as the chorus sang Sein Blut komme über uns) (“His blood be upon us”), the Televangelist and Convict ripped off Pilate’s jacket to reveal a white shirt covered with bloody hand prints.

His transformation complete, the repentant Televangelist removed the TV equipment and microphone from his pulpit.  McGraw mounted a riser and simulated the crucifixion by spreading out his arms and delivered a heart-rending Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? ("My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?").  Fittingly, the Convict and Televangelist assumed the role of the two thieves.

Skillfully led by Rivers, the Choir, Orchestra and soloists exemplified Bach's music at its deepest and most profound level.  Outstanding numbers to the end were Wakefield’s Ach Golgotha and Sehe Jesus hat die Hand (“See Jesus’ outstretched hand”) and bass Derrell Acon’s  Mache dich, mein Herze, rein) (“Make my heart clean from sin”).  The latter sparked one of the production’s most potent visual metaphors, as everyone, including the chorus, removed their red clothing items, which were gathered and placed on the floor around the “cross.”  During the final chorus, the Televangelist picked up the Bible and walked off.  The Convict removed his orange shirt, went back to the electric chair and was executed.

CCM’s “St. Matthew Passion,” sponsored by the Tangeman Sacred Music Center, was too good to receive only one performance.  One hopes it will be repeated soon.