How does one choreograph, stage, and design the set and costumes for an opera that is not, well, an opera? If you are Wisconsin-born, German-based John Neumeier, it’s not exactly a cakewalk, but if you’ve been at the helm of Hamburg Ballet, one of the world’s preeminent dance troupes, since 1973, you take on J.S. Bach’s sublime St. Matthew Passion. Written in 1727 to present the Passion story in music at Good Friday vesper services by setting the 26th and 27th chapters of St. Matthew’s Gospel from the Lutheran bible, the work spoke to Neumeier, who has succeeded in this enormous undertaking, not only with panache, but also with intense fervor and an eye for beauty, albeit a tortured splendor.
An unlikely but potent collaboration with Los Angeles Opera, this nearly four-hour sacred oratorio recounting Christ’s final days is, indeed, operatic, and as told through the bodies of 42 dancers, six singers, two choruses, and two mighty-in-sound chamber orchestras (led by LAO’s music director, the magnificent James Conlon), the work was often staggering, if occasionally wearying, when it opened on Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (It runs through March 27; Hamburg Ballet is also performing the last of its three concerts, “Bernstein Dances,” to live music on March 19.)
Neumeier, who staged Orpheus and Eurydice for LAO in his 2018 debut, is no stranger to the Passion, having first mounted it with his company in Hamburg’s St. Michael’s Church in 1980, before bringing it to the stage of the Hamburg State Opera the following year. When the work, which premiered in 1983 in New York and featured Neumeier as “Christ” (performed in L.A. by principal dancer Marc Jubete), then-New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff wrote, “Mr. Neumeier has functioned as a first-rate theatrical director here. His sense of drama never left him, and his sensitivity to the emotions expressed in this retelling of Christ’s last days was always evident.”
This holds true today, with Bach’s score still standing as one of the pillars of Western sacred music, seemingly at once monumental and intimate, as deeply sorrowful as it is powerful. Composed in Leipzig, where Bach was the Kapellmeister, he chose Christian Friedrich Henrici, whose pen name was Picander, to write the devotional poetry for the solo arias and major choruses that complement the Biblical words sung by the Evangelist and Jesus.
The vocalists, all in fine form and singing from the pit, featured Joshua Blue’s robust tenor as the Evangelist, the chief storyteller, whose speech-like recitative, often accompanied by soaring strings, was particularly potent and became fare for high drama, notably after Jesus’s death, when he has bursts of vocal anguish and fury.
Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel’s poignant Jesus also delivers his words to resonating strings, his authoritative voice emphasizing each pronouncement and filling the hall with booming authority, more so when crying out on the cross, “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken me?”
Performing from near opposite ends of the pit and taking on other characters, including Judas, Pontius Pilate, Pilate’s Wife, and the High Priest, were soprano Tamara Wilson, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, tenor Ben Bliss, and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson. The women, when singing the astonishing, “So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen” (Thus is my Jesus now captured), infuse the lament — the oratorio’s only duet — with a keening luster, while the chorus responds, “Unbind him,” unleashing an inferno of musical colors.
Bliss’s lyric voice shone throughout, upping the emotional ante by managing to balance grace and urgency effectively, while Sigmundsson, in “Komm, süsses Kreuz” (Come, sweet cross), offered elegant phrasing, yet singing with directness and frankness, as the accompanying score captured Jesus’s stumbling footsteps while grappling with the cross.
The dancers, anonymous and clad in flowy white, embodied the guilt, grief, and redemption of the story, their movement vocabulary, charged with feeling, taking on a remarkable range of steps, including angsty bourrées, fierce arabesques, and constantly evolving circles, replete with raised, outstretched, and entwined arms. With Neumeier’s simple set of platform steps — the two choruses were on risers at the back of the stage, often blacked-out to enhance the affecting aspects of the story — the design also served a variety of functions, including as benches, crosses, and a kind of cage, with the dancers, onstage throughout, creating a vast array of tableaux, even while moving the props themselves.
In a comment in the program notes, Neumeier explained the challenge of depicting the biblical events through his dancers: “One of my main ideas is to avoid a clear separation between biblical characters and ‘witnesses.’ In the choreography, the images that emerge are the physical results of their emotional reaction to this music. Some dancers may take on the gospel characters [by] simply putting themselves inside these characters. Asking themselves, for example: ‘What would I feel like being Judas?’”
Divided into two parts with 14 contrapuntally complex chorales (sung by the LAO Chorus led by resident conductor Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus helmed by Fernando Malvar-Ruiz), the first begins with Jesus’s betrayal by Judas, followed by the Last Supper and Jesus’s arrest by the Romans at Gethsemane. After the sermon, the Passion resumes with Jesus’s interrogation by the high priests and his crucifixion and death, the work ending with the sealing of his tomb, the final chorus, “We Sit Down in Tears,” a beautiful, but humble, lullaby.
In this production, which ran the gamut of human sentiment and proved, to this reviewer, both draining and spiritually sustaining, the very magnificence of Bach’s musical conception ultimately worked by dint of the notion that it had no need to be augmented by grandeur, but by Neumeier’s balletic, and in this case, minimalistic vision. Notable terpsichorean standouts were Aleix Martinez, Yaiza Coll, Pablo Polo, Xue Lin, and Florian Pohl.
Still, the music, as embodied by the dancers, becomes ever more haunting, more gorgeous, more meaningful, especially during these fraught times. After living with a devastating global pandemic for two-plus years, and now, as we experience in real-time, the senseless, merciless assault on Ukraine by Russia, it was fitting that the choruses sang the Ukrainian national anthem before the Passion began. And although the title — St. Matthew Passion should, perhaps, refer to that of Christ and not Matthew — here the word “passion” does not denote love, but comes from the Latin, “passio,” meaning, “to suffer.” Let the healing, then, please begin.