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Bach's St John Passion as musical theatre: it can be done

Initiated by Pierre Audi in 2016, the Opera Forward Festival questions the future of musical theatre. The 13-day festival offers (young) makers and singers a chance to explore new paths. For the second edition, Audi himself directed And You Must Suffer, a musical-theatrical version of Bach's St John Passion. This production by Muziektheater Transparant and early music ensemble B'Roque had its Dutch premiere at Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ on Tuesday 28 March. The performance was rewarded with enthusiastic applause.


With his inventive mis-en-espace, Audi makes the drama of Jesus Christ palpable. The singers of Cappella Amsterdam group menacingly around him as they ask Pontius Pilate to put him to death. Standing on a platform, Christ hears their accusations. When Pilate changes tack and has him scourged, he cringes in pain, whereupon the choir weakly stretches out its hands to him. After his crucifixion, the singers sneak off the stage in shame, singing 'Ich will dich preisen ewiglich'.

Just as smugly, they emerged in pitch darkness during the prologue composed by Annelies van Parys. In And Thou Must Suffer she imbues Gregorian-like melody lines with shrill, dissonant exclamations from the choir: doom naked. She subtly interweaves motifs by Bach with her own piece, which she seamlessly fuses with Bach's St John Passion.

Scene photo And You Must Suffer (c) Koen Broos

Outstanding singers and musicians

The concentration of Cappella Amsterdam's singers is exemplary. For over two hours, they move across the stage in constantly changing formations and in various postures. Yet they sing everything by heart, flawlessly and in perfect harmony with the equally excellent musicians of B'Roque. These are arranged to the left and right of conductor Andreas Spering. With smooth but decided gestures, he leads the performers through Bach's varied and colourful music. Soft, subdued passages of individual instruments stand next to loud, frightening tutti in a fierce rhythm.

Vulnerable but proud Jesus

Jakob Pilgram is a compelling Evangelist. His clarion-like tenor reaches into the furthest corners of the hall and he seems genuinely involved in what he sings. The towering Dominik Köninger is an equally vulnerable and proud Jesus. With his warm baritone and penetrating facial expressions, he denounces the hypocrisy of his attackers. The tenor Magnus Staveland plays his role of wavering Peter with verve. With his stooped stature and hoodie pulled nervously over his face, he denies his friend three times.

Equally impressive is the bass Tomás Král, who as Pilate seems truly appalled by the injustice done to Christ. The soprano Grace Davidson has a beautiful light voice, which, however, gradually becomes more uncertain. The alto Benno Schachtner also starts convincingly, but his voice sometimes shoots up uncontrollably at emotional moments.

Rogier van der Weyden, Christ on the Cross with Mary and John. Oil on panel (1457-1464) photo credit Wikipedia

Exemplary lighting plan

Peter Quasters' exemplary lighting plan with an alternation of chiaroscuro and strong contrasts makes the story even more poignant. The video images by Mirjam Devriendt and Vincent Dunoyer add another layer. Bare olive branches depict Christ's loneliness, a hand extended behind him in slow motion illustrates how much his fate is in other people's hands. The footage of the panel's restoration shown towards the end Christ on the cross by Rogier van der Weyden, however, are too explicit and distract attention from the music.


After the first movement, the video screen turns ochre yellow. We imagine ourselves in a sandy desert, while the newly composed L'Apokalypse Arabe by Samir Odeh-Tamini resounds. Fearful whispers and harrowing harmonies from the choir, strumming in the harpsichord and elongated string lines create an ominous atmosphere. The video shows red-tinged images of destroyed cities accompanying the words "7,000 Arabs were stunned, blinded". It comes as a total Fremdkörper and is a tad too politically-correct. Annelies van Parys' short, dissonant epilogue also clashes with Bach's consolatory final song.

Prefer concertante anyway

Audi has come up with And You Must Suffer demonstrated that a passion has musical-theatrical potential. But despite the excellent performance and appealing staging, boredom struck after an hour and a half. The principle show, don't tell on which true opera thrives, has completely passed Bach by. The construction of a narrator (the evangelist) who talks the scenes together is contrived and takes the momentum out of the performance. It also complicates identification with the characters.

So while the experiment was successful, in the end a concert performance seems more convincing to me.

Good to know

Seen 28-3-2017, Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ. Still to be seen there 29-3-2017. Info and playlist via this link. 

On 15 and 16 April 2018, the production will be performed again at the Opéra de Rouen

Thea Derks

Thea Derks studied English and Musicology. In 1996, she completed her studies in musicology cum laude at the University of Amsterdam. She specialises in contemporary music and in 2014 published the critically acclaimed biography 'Reinbert de Leeuw: man or melody'. Four years on, she completed 'An ox on the roof: modern music in vogevlucht', aimed especially at the interested layperson. You buy it here: In 2020, the 3rd edition of the Reinbertbio appeared,with 2 additional chapters describing the period 2014-2020. These also appeared separately as Final Chord.View Author posts

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