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Sorrow or passion?

What is the St Matthew Passion really about? Director Benedikt von Peter attempts a revival of the work

Johann Sebastian Bach
Conductor: Alessandro de Marchi; Director: Benedikt von Peter; With Sebastian Kohlhepp, Mané Galoyan, Annika Schlicht, Michael Kim, Thomas Lehman, Padraic Rowan, Joel Allison, Samuel Dale Johnson et al.
25, 30 April; 2, 7, 16 May; 5 June 2021

»Passion refers to two things: suffering and the passion of Jesus. The idea of passion is a thread running through the entire history of Western culture and the history of opera. And in my mind there is a conflict there. Why is there such a close link between physical suffering and suffering in the sense of religious passion? What values are being celebrated? And what does this ‘celebration’ of humility, mercy and pain really mean?

The St Matthew Passion is a great, epic narrative in musical-theatre form. The music and the numbering system alone confer a plasticity on the story of the Passion of Christ – the music alone conjures up images before the mind’s eye, in the same way that a radio play does. And the Passion emerges from the community, as it were. Two choruses and two orchestras from outlying areas were brought in to St Thomas’s Church in Leipzig, the house of worship for which the St Matthew Passion was written.

The audience was positioned in the midst of the music and lyrics, the onlookers thereby experiencing their own version of the physical suffering. We find this performative chronology fascinating. We will be transposing the piece into the corpus of the community, as it were, and will have four orchestras and a number of different choral groups in the auditorium.

In the middle there will be a group of children acting out the story. After all, children in the public eye have become a new social topos thanks to Greta Thunberg. And with children now part of the proceedings onstage, the question may arise of what we are taking on physically as we listen to this Passion. What values are reverberating through our bodies? We’re interested in rendering this experience and this question onstage.

And in the process we want to inject life into the space occupied by ritualistic behaviour. Many of Bach’s chorales were hits in their day, let alone in our day. They were made for sing-alongs. Which is why we have invited Berlin choral societies to take part and the audience is encouraged to sing along. Through the acts of listening and making music, people will be able to feel the Passion bodily. This may result in a form of social plasticity.«


Benedikt von Peter, a director, will take up his new post as Artistic Director of the Theater Basel at the end of the 2020/21 season. Since completing his studies in Bonn and Berlin the Cologne-born von Peter has devoted himself to musical-theatre works ranging from Mozart to the latest pieces by modern composers


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