Strictly speaking, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions – with their recitatives, arias and choruses – contain the central components of a dramatic work. And in actual fact some Bach contemporaries found the pieces (too) operatic, as evidenced by a report from the Saxon pastor Christian Gerber in 1732 about a performance of the St Matthew Passion: “When this theatrical music began, all the people were thrown into the greatest bewilderment, they looked at one another and said: ‘What will become of this?’ An elderly widow of the nobility exclaimed: ‘God save us, my children! It’s just as if we were at the opera.’”
The passion story with its truly dramatic action evokes in the listeners almost of its own accord imaginary scenery in which Jesus, Peter, Pilate, the Apostles and the people seem to act as if on a stage. As early as 1921, Ferruccio Busoni was thinking about a dramatic performance of the St Matthew Passion, at which the dramatic action would take place on two stages built on top of each other.
In 2010, Peter Sellars staged the work at Salzburg Easter Festival and in the Berlin Philharmonie. It has also been released as a DVD production. In this concert, it is the turn of Bach’s St John Passion to appear on the “philharmonic stage”: “It is not theatre. It is a prayer, a meditation,” the director says. Sir Simon Rattle conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker. In addition to the Rundfunkchor Berlin, the singers include an ensemble of soloists which, with the exception of Roderick Williams, was previously heard in Sellars’s realisation of the St Matthew Passion.