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Passion play

Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music
03/11/2002 -  and 11, 12, 14, 15 March 2002
George Frideric Handel: Brockes Passion
Robert Murray (Evangelist), Julianne de Villiers, Miriam Ryen, Claire Surman (Daughters of Zion), James Harrison (Jesus), Andrew Kennedy (Peter), Clint van der Linde (Judas), James Laing (John), Richard Scott (James), Caiaphas/Centurion (Sion Goronwy), Shannon Foley (Pontius Pilate), Martene Grimson (Mary), Nicholas Watts (Simon of Cyrene), Ilona Domnich (Mary Magdalene), David Sheringham, Catriona Clark, Katherine Manley, Elizabeth Ife

Denys Darlow (conductor), Tom Hawkes (director)

Handel's Brockes Passion is something between a liturgical passion, the genre of which Bach wrote the masterpieces, and an Italian oratorio. There are a tenor Evangelist, commenting arias, and a chorus who take on the roles of both the Jewish mob and the Christian faithful responding to Christ's suffering and death. But the characters in the narrative also have arias, even Jesus, who sings a duet with Mary his mother, although these are often commenting or expressive rather than dramatic. The London Handel Festival is presenting a staged version in the "opera" slot, which seems strange but defensible: the Bach passions have been staged with some success in recent years, while the Brockes Passion, like La resurrezione, has something in common with the mediaeval mystery plays, which still bear performance. Indeed, a South African version of the Coventry mystery play is currently running in the West End.

Tom Hawkes' production doesn't try to do anything remotely unexpected. The set is a skeletal church, with arched windows, pews for the chorus and a pulpit where the Evangelist sings the narration. The singers (in generic Bible dress) form picture-book groups and touch each other's arms to express sympathy. The crucifixion is shown from behind, presumably to spare the audience gore and the production the need for special effects, and everything else is correspondingly tasteful, although the text often focuses on Christ's wound and his redeeming blood.

The work is so unfamiliar that is it difficult to judge on first seeing it whether the staging does any harm. La resurrezione and Esther (Handel's first English oratorio, written about the same time as the Brockes Passion, certainly have more drama and danger than emerged from this performance. But it's not immediately clear whether Handel's Brockes Passion, an experimental work for him, is in fact less powerful than these or the Bach passions, or whether the production distracted the performers from getting into the guts of the work. There was definitely a touch of the school play about the evening, though there was also some fine singing and obvious commitment from the student cast.

Robert Murray as Jesus was rock solid vocally and impressively still and focussed. He has the makings of a fine baritone. Sion Goronwy was resonant as Caiaphas and, especially, in the Centurion's aria at the crucifixion. Clint van der Linde was a suitably sinister Judas. The three sopranos who shared the Daughter of Zion arias were all clear and expressive.

H.E. Elsom



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