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Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, March 2011

English subtitles are missing…from choreographer John Neumeier’s version of the St Matthew Passion. Unless you are fluent in German or know the text inside out, this is a problem, because one can’t begin to appreciate the choreography—let alone the work itself, sans choreography—unless one knows what is being sung. This, however, is the only thing wrong with this Arthaus Musik release.

Neumeier’s working relationship with the Passion began more than three decades ago, and his version of it has been performed more than a hundred times—sometimes with Neumeier himself as ChriSt The performance presented here was the final one in which the choreographer danced this role, so the emotional stakes are even higher than they would have been otherwise. One can’t avoid drawing parallels between Christ and his followers and the choreographer and his dancers, and here, unlike in Guth’s Messiah, the parallels do not seem forced.

This is a complete performance of Bach’s Passion, danced to a recorded audio track dating from 1980. (More about that later.) For the dancers, this is a true ensemble work, even though different dancers at times step forward and take on specific roles. Every dancer is involved in the performance at all times, if not actively, then at least as a reflecting surface for what is occurring elsewhere on the stage.

The recitatives advance the plot, as it were, and Neumeier’s use of pantomime in these sections is skilled. In the arias and choruses, the dancers, by themselves or in groupings of various sizes, create visual metaphors for what is being expressed in the texts or in the music. Neumeier, not a classicist by any means, is not afraid to go against the grain in these metaphors, although in doing so he never seems perverse, sacrilegious, or simply self-indulgent. For example, the static text and stately music of “Ich will dir mein Herze schenken” is accompanied by furious stage action, but the strength of Neumeier’s vision and faith (he declares himself a Christian in the booklet notes) are not in doubt. Any performance of the Passion is exhausting; this one is no less so.

Conductor Günter Jena’s 1980 performance of the Passion has been tied to Neumeier’s choreography from the beginning. I know nothing about Jena, and it would be silly to claim he has conducted a performance of the Passion that is particularly suited to dancing. He was an assistant to Karl Richter, and has maintained a deep relationship with this particular work throughout his career. His conducting is both graceful and grave. The soloists, for the most part, need no introduction, although I will add that Peter Schreier sometimes sounds a little more strained than I would expect him to be at this stage in his career. None of the singing is larger than life; instead, it has a humility and sincerity that suit the dancing. Similarly, the choir, while not at all unpolished, impresses one more with its devotion and its comfort with the idiom than with its technical perfection. This is a performance almost anyone would be glad to hear, even without dancing. With the dancing, its impact is intensified.

The camerawork is a little more restless than I would like, and this is one of those DVDs that allows the viewer to select multiple viewing angles. (No thanks; that is the job of the video editor, as far as I am concerned.) The image and the sound are excellent…

I first became acquainted with Neumeier through his insightful reimagining of Delibes’s Sylvia for the Paris Opera Ballet. This, while very different, is no less good. Thumbs up, then, to St Matthew Passion the ballet…

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