Classical Music Review
By Leslie Kandell
The Passion, which is the Gospel text of the betrayal, arrest, suffering and crucifixion of Jesus, is part of what is known as the greatest story ever told. Bach intended the work to be a portion of a Good Friday church service, so it's not about Easter or the Resurrection, and it has no happy ending. It ends with agony on a cross, grieving onlookers who realize what they've done, and also for Bach's pious congregation, who wish they could atone personally. The attentive chorus of 225, which rehearsed for a week under the English conductor David Hill, was a mightier force than Bach would have ever had. Massed volunteers are squarely in England's choral tradition, so Hill wasn't fazed. He moved tempos, went for precision and contrast, and drew strong moments, like the crowd's call for Barabbas. The initial double chorus - women on the boys' verse - came on strident, but the final statement of the chorale Bach harmonized seven ways was appropriately tender. Anyone who knows this field will tell you that this monumental piece stands or falls on the way the Evangelist tells the story. Saturday's wonderful Evangelist was the bilingual tenor Rufus Muller, who without need of a score gave a blow-by-blow report on the blazing-hot tale of cruelty and spiritual love that he, perhaps scrambling up onto a rock, had a better view of than the crowd did. Subtly registering anguish and compassion as he apparently watched the action, he deeply understood the language, his mission and the unfolding scene. For the Evangelist, the point is not vocal quality, but telling the tale. If by the time of the crucifixion, 2 1/2 hours in and counting, Muller's voice cracked and he missed a couple of notes, it could have been the same bug that had caused a last-minute substitute for the baritone, or, considering Muller's acting, from the emotional exhaustion of having borne witness to the gospels' greatest tragedy. Bass-baritone Kevin Deas, the Jesus, is an experienced veteran of oratorio whose rolling voice only gets better with time. He was occasionally less humble than stentorian: telling his disciples to drink from the cup which is his blood is supposed to be an offer, not an order. A number of things got better as the performance went along, notably the baritone voice of Andrew Wentzel, who sang the spiritual commentary arias on short notice. Once he noticed he was doing well, the arias settled in his voice and became flexible. Lucy Bardo, viola da gamba player, accompanied on the floridly ornate lines. Countertenor Johnny Maldonado's alto arias were affecting - particularly the famous "Erbarme dich," ("have mercy," in the uncredited translation) with concertmistress Masako Yamagita on the showy violin part. Soprano Rachel Rosales was an able presence, and tenor Jeff Thompson, after cracking in his first aria, sang sweetly. Bach is said to have composed at least four passions of this magnitude. The others are lost. It's a thought too deep for tears.