In recent years, there’s been a substantial amount of controversy over staged adaptions of the Easter story, even more so when you add music to the mix. For example, the Broadway staging and subsequent performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar caused great uproar from religious groups. The very idea of condensing Christ’s death into a power ballad just would not do accurate service to the brutal agony. Likewise, English National Opera made a bold decision in 2000 to stage Bach’s choral masterpiece, the St. John Passion.
When one is dealing with what, for many believers, is an intensely personal story, stagings will always be risky. Even after the fifteenth century, the church generally saw sacred and secular works as separate, so to further sentimentalise the Passion would have been anathema, particularly during the Lenten period. Indeed, Bach’s Passion oratorios were written specifically for the purposes of the Lutheran church congregation, as a means for their faith.
Yet, music has a unique ability to reach out on all levels. Combine this with the live drama right before your eyes and it can make be potent. Just watch the opening chorus from Peter Sellars’s acclaimed ‘ritualisation’ of the Matthew Passion. Whilst Bach’s interweaving vocal lines are complex, a constant outpouring of devotion, there is something so simple but poignant about Sellars’s staging. The choir lament on Jesus’s death, some have their backs turned to the audience, as if to completely reject Christ in human form. Others sit lifeless, hands to their heads, overwhelmed by this event. Then there is the merciful, urgent, hymn-like prayer of the children, ‘O guiltless Lamb of God / Slaughtered on the stem of the cross’, their visible presence at the top of the auditorium, placed amongst the audience, a symbol of Jesus’s sacrifice for all people, young and old.
In addition, regardless of religion, the Passion is one account that embodies the full gamut of human experiences. Love, betrayal, death, sorrow, forgiveness, mercy, joy, hope, these are all significant concepts to which we can relate. It is no surprise, therefore, that the story has proven so powerful with a whole range of people, whether they are devout Christians or audiences at the O2, perhaps witnessing this story for this first time.
For all of the outrage, from the church to the concert hall and curtain up, the visceral emotions of music, theatre and the Easter story are just as relevant today as they were in the eighteenth century and before.