Bach’s St John Passion has been subjected to a variety of theatrical treatments: staged emotionally by Deborah Warner for English National Opera and eccentrically by Peter Sellars for Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.
English Touring Opera presents it as a cathartic community experience rather than a theatrical performance. By involving local choirs in each city and commissioning modern translations of the texts by writers of different faiths, ETO has added a different element to a season that includes classic Mozart and Handel operas.
At Hackney Empire, the auditorium is suffused with a bath of warm sound and golden lighting, creating an intimacy that will be easier to achieve in smaller venues. Soloists in slacks and sweaters or loose dresses wander through the orchestra and audience; the choirs and children’s choruses line the stage and spill into the dress circle.
Director James Conway has divided the role of the Evangelist between the soloists rather than giving it to one tenor, which does make it harder for each to carve out his or her own character. The conducting of Jonathan Peter Kenny, positioned centre stage, is the most theatrical element of the performance.
The instruments of the Old Street Band are sweet and soft-grained and the soloists almost conversational in their arias and narrative. Collegium Musicum of London, Hackney Singers, the young Hackney Choral and the London Youth Boys’ Choir sing with rapt concentration and clarity. This is an understated performance of Bach’s masterpiece that arouses compassion rather than passion.