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Festival Hall’s staged St John Passion is about as good as it gets

28 March, 2019 — By Michael White

Peter Sellars (photo: Ruth Watz); and Sir Simon Rattle (photo: Oliver Helbig)

THE Bach Passions were never meant to be staged, but that doesn’t stop people trying. And the most recent in a long line of directors who have tried, repeatedly, to turn these great choral works into theatre pieces (Jonathan Miller and Deborah Warner among them) is Peter Sellars: the genially charismatic if slightly loopy (just look at his hair) American responsible for the staging of the St John Passion at the Festival Hall next week.

It can only be an Event – very much with a capital E because the conductor is Sir Simon Rattle who has done this sort of thing with Sellars before. The ensemble will be the historically informed Choir and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. And the soloists include Mark Padmore singing the Evangelist as only he can (being one of the pre-eminent exponents on the international circuit these days), with the fabulous Roderick Williams and the mesmerising Christian Gerhaher. All of which is about as good as such thing get.

How Sellars tackles the problems of giving visual life to the chorus-heavy, internalised drama of Bach’s music remains to be seen. But when he staged the Matthew Passion with Rattle at the Barbican some years ago, it created a truly edge-of-the-seat experience out of nothing but a pile of boxes on the platform and the singers casually in concert black.

Anything more would somehow have been too much. And judging by a commercially available DVD of his John Passion when it played in Berlin, what you’ll see at the Festival Hall will be along the same lines. Simple, strong and from the heart. To an unsparing degree.

For anyone with Christian faith it’s a perfect path to Easter. And for anyone without, Bach’s Passions rank among the greatest cultural statements of all time. In Peter Sellars’ words they are “transformative rituals reaching across time and space”. Unignorable. And in this case, unmissable.

• Bach’s St John Passion, 7pm, Tuesday April 2, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX. From £10, 020 3879 9555, www.southbankcentre.co.uk

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