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The Hamburg Ballet encounters Bach and Bernstein with rich imagery and movement

A man of the church, not of the theatre, Bach did not write for the dance. But dance was at its core. Consisting of dance forms, his instrumental suites, partitas and concertos may contain some of the most profound pieces of music by this most profound of composers.

Bach didn’t write an opera either. But the drama was also at its core. His sacred cantatas and passions, above all the “St. Matthew Passion” contain some of the most profound dramas of this most profound of composers.

Dancing to Bach is a matter of course, as Jerome Robbins, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and many others have lovingly demonstrated. Staging Bach is not so self-evident. But Peter Sellars in particular has impressively demonstrated that this is not only possible, but also essential.

In 1980, seven years after becoming Artistic Director of the Hamburg Ballet, the American choreographer John Neumeier staged “St. Matthew Passion” as a ballet-like medieval passion play in the city’s Michaeliskirche and then brought it to the opera house. In 1983 it was considered avant-garde enough for the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Until 2005, it was a classic to go with the glamorous Baden-Baden Festival.

The dancers stand in a circle, join hands and lean outwards.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Two opera singers in black.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Now, four decades after the ballet was created, but still rarely seen outside of Hamburg, Neumeier’s “St. Matthew Passion” has reached the Los Angeles Opera, raising the further question of where dance, sacred passion and Opera cut. To make things even more exciting, Dance at the Music Center invited the Hamburg Ballet to bring their “Bernstein Dances” to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for two more nights.

Bernstein happened to have performed and recorded Bach’s Passion with the New York Philharmonic in 1962, which was then, and still is, considered controversial. Bernstein shortened Bach to increase the theatricality of the Passion and performed the German text in English. He treated the recitative narrative of Christ’s last days as an inescapably lively drama. He gave Bach’s great choruses and solemn hymns the grandeur of Greek choruses. He unleashed raw operatic passion in soul-searching arias rather than a church passion.

Bernstein questioned everything. The “St. Matthew” was living, breathing, human theater for him. But his spiritual essence also got under Bernstein’s skin. This led to his direct confrontation with God in his Third Symphony, written after Kennedy’s assassination, and then in his musically and spiritually transgressive 1972 “Mass.”

Neumeier doesn’t quite sum it all up. “Bernstein Dances” traces Bernstein’s career from his earliest dances and Broadway shows to “Mass”, but only “A Simple Song” and “Meditation 2” take a look at Bernstein’s spiritual side. In addition to show melodies and small incidental piano pieces, the main orchestral music consists of the violin concerto “Serenade After Plato’s ‘Symposium'” and dances from “West Side Story”.

There are large projections onstage from Bernstein, who is known to conduct with extravagant sentiment, something the company’s conductor, Garrett Keast, aggressively tries to match with a pit orchestra.

Prince. Matthew,” James Conlon more reverently – and sanely – conducts the LA Opera Orchestra and Chorus along with the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. The vocal soloists come from the world of opera, but sing from the ditch.

Dancers with arms raised and hands clasped form a wave pattern.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Two male dancers support a third, his arms vertical.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

Neumeier is cheekier with Bernstein, more stylized with Bach; in “Passion” his dancers, dressed in brilliant white, create images of elegantly considered classical movement. Bach’s wondrous contrapuntal complexity, full of numerical symbolism and mathematical purity, is reflected on stage as the dancers take on architectural set pieces of great beauty.

In both cases, narrative attempts work less well. Tortured, ecstatic and much in between, Bernstein sits at his piano and dreams of dances that come to life. In an instant – or you’ll miss it – Bernstein throws himself onto the piano, arms outstretched, as if crucified on the keyboard. Best to blink.

The irreconcilable difference between “amber” and “St. Matthew” is dealing with music, the main theme of both. In one a mishmash of Bernstein flair with two singers and a pianist on stage, the mood, the method and the energy always different. In the “St. Matthew” the music feels less free. The limitations of the dance mean that dancers must learn choreography at specific tempos. Everything has to fit the movement on stage.

Music requires less expression to give more to dance. This robs the singers of personality, leaving them in the ditch, hidden from many in the audience. Opening on March 12, Susan Graham came closest to capturing palpable depth of feeling in the fiery alto aria “Erbarme Dich” (Have mercy). Ben Bliss proved a penetrating tenor. But Kristinn Sigmundsson, a worthy Jesus on recordings, failed as a bass player. Soprano Tamara Wilson sounded lost in the first part of the long passion, but rose to the occasion in the second.

In the recitatives, in which the evangelist narrates the Passion and proclaims Jesus in the first person (Joshua Blue and Michael Sumuel, respectively), the singers boomed to make their presence felt when not seen. Nothing can dampen the opera’s magnificent chorus, although placing it behind a backstage scrim, well away from Conlon and the orchestra in the ditch, lessened its effectiveness.

A line of kneeling men, faces raised to the sky.

Dancers of the Hamburg Ballet.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

A line of male dancers raise their arms to the sky.

Dancers perform as part of “St. Matthew Passion”.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

All of this puts a lot of strain on the dancers’ shoulders. Ironically, for opera, they are most emotional anyway when they are least expressive. If they move with a Bach-directed grace, they might lead you to believe they were directed by God, and the Passion takes on a graceful spirituality.

But Neumeier’s efforts at symbolism and narrative can also achieve the unfortunate opposite. The dancers are not at their best when in a scene they are shown tied up or asked to maintain a holy spirit while crucified. However, Jesus sitting cross-legged as the Buddha in meditation is an interesting alternative. Elevated benches, the eclectic features of the main stage capturing the character of Jesus, make him appear as if he were in a phone booth calling heaven. Chest pounding and chaos at Jesus’ death have less power to rip your heart than Bach’s music.

Jesus may declare that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. For Neumeier, the flesh is never weak and the spirit is not always willing.

And that could be the choreographer’s big secret. Despite all his mixed messages, Neumeier creates a ritual that evolves into a spectacle of incessant, rich imagery and movement over four hours. Dancers with stamina and grace slowly become agents of wonder. In further performances, the musicians may feel a little freer.

Fight Neumeier if you have to. Alas, that a Bach Passion has no place on the lyrical stage. Bach wins. This “St. Matthew is special when it has the right to be, and miraculous when it isn’t. St. Lenny doesn’t get off so easily.

‘st Matthew Passion” and “Bernstein Dances”

Where from: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 S. Grand Ave., LA

When: “Bernstein Dances”, 7:30 p.m., March 19; “St. Matthew Passion”, March 20 and 27, 2 p.m., March 23 and 26, 7.30 p.m

Tickets: “Amber”, $38-$138; “St. Matthew”, $19-$292

The information: musiccenter.org, (213) 972-0711

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-03-19/review-st-matthew-passion-los-angeles-opera-john-neumeier-hamburg-ballet The Hamburg Ballet encounters Bach and Bernstein with rich imagery and movement

Caroline Bleakley

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