Celebrating Easter 2000 and the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, the ENO made the bold decision to stage one of his great dramatic Passions, which normally unfold the Easter story in static performance. Of course there is a long tradition of medieval mystery plays so the sight of Jesus personified on stage is hardly new, but still this was a risky venture which could have backfired under the wrong direction.
In fact, the staging on the whole worked well – plain, unadorned sets, with the occasional use of bleached-out video images on the otherwise blank back wall, a cast dressed in casual contemporary clothes, and the use of a few carefully chosen props.
Even the cross gets paired down – we see just the upright, looming high and menacing. There were a few elements of the staging that are best forgotten – the laying of hundreds of bouquets of flowers after the deposition immediately (and unfortunately) conjured up a vision of Kensington Palace and another famous death; the live ‘lamb of God’ clutched by the Evangelist in the closing moments looked (and sounded) terrified and brought in a touch of farce which can scarcely have been intended.
But what an Evangelist. Even the lamb couldn’t destroy the presence of Mark Padmore, a young tenor with a voice of exquisite beauty. He tells the story with dignity and compassion, an observer who is also greatly moved by the events he relates. The evening is his triumph, and the audience at the first night certainly let him know that.
He is ably supported by Paul Whelan, a tall New Zealand bass-baritone singing the role of Jesus – a minor part musically, but he makes it seem larger by his commanding presence on stage. The voice is pretty good, too. Also outstanding was David Kempster as Pilate, first seen preparing for ‘another day at the office’ by donning his suit jacket. This was a scene where the modern dress worked particularly well, bringing home the reality of the personalities, the sense that if a Saviour arrived today the same thing would probably happen again…
One outstanding feature of the performance was the clarity of the diction from the soloists – hardly a word was lost, rare indeed in a theatre notorious for its difficult acoustics. Was this related to the new structures above the proscenium arch – and if so will they stay there, or are they just for this production? But if they helped the soloists, why couldn’t we hear the words from the chorus of Jews? There is some fine choral singing from amateur choirs ranged in the boxes either side of the stage, but the experiment in audience participation – all are invited to join in three chorales, with house lights partially raised and sheet music handed out with programmes – should probably be quietly dropped.