As eternal as Bach's
St. Matthew Passion
seems, it changes significantly over time, accommodating each new generation's artistic relationship with the music - and then some.
What unfolded at Verizon Hall on Wednesday bore surface resemblance to the St. Matthew Passion Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducted with the Philadelphia Orchestra two years ago, with some of the same soloists and a similar stage setup, a cruciform platform creating a runway that divided the orchestra. Yet the experience was much more evolved, building on 2013 and perhaps emboldened by the trend toward externalizing Bach's drama with physical action. Staging it, in effect. Sort of.
The idea isn't so new (director Jonathan Miller's staging has been making the rounds for decades), and Peter Sellars' more recent outings with the Berlin Philharmonic have been vastly acclaimed. Interestingly, they all put singers in modern, anonymous dress and use powers of suggestion rather than becoming a full-costume Bible pageant.
James Alexander's Philadelphia Orchestra staging was much more convincing this year - amid a performance that had less awe, more immediacy, less resignation, and much more anguish. Conventionally static concert presentations might not seem so acceptable in the future.
Alexander invented ways to allow the soloists to sing to somebody onstage rather than looking vaguely into the auditorium. A key catalyst was the character of Jesus: In place of 2013's Luca Pisaroni, Andrew Foster-Williams (in contrast to more stoic portrayals) was fighting fate along the way, with a manner that screamed, "Don't you see what's happening?"
Other soloists seemed unusually possessed, aided by a strong sense of how much Bach's compositional building blocks (repeated sequences of phrases, etc.) underscore the messages in the words.
Soprano Carolyn Sampson is one of the more compelling singers out there, and she was her often magical self. But the class distinction suggested by Sampson (in more traditional concert gowns) and mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill (barefoot and in rehearsal clothes) created yet another layer of tension. Cargill even stepped off the platform and interacted with concertmaster David Kim during his obligato in the great aria "Have Mercy, Lord on Me."
Besides assuming the usual role of narrator, tenor Andrew Staples (the Evangelist) was so emotionally committed that he also became the piece's commentator - with exemplary vocalism. Philippe Sly's bass arias matched everybody's commitment and with clean, stylish singing.
The Westminster Symphonic Choir was drafted for psychological stage design. Their music books sometimes covered their faces, as if recoiling from Christ's degradation. Amid the seismic descriptions of the earth rumbling, they moved their books in undulating patterns. The American Boychoir lined up in a higher gallery, like angels in the rafters.
Vocally, chorales were lovely and exclamatory choruses were edgy. Between those extremes were partly cloudy balances. More than usual, though, Nézet-Séguin gave each chorale its own well-considered tint based the music's narrative function. Moderate tempos that felt slow in 2013 had a vital pulse, fusing the collective forces much earlier in this uncut performance. A heightened exploration of crucifixion will do that - while creating a peak musical experience.