I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Heavenly choirs in a world premiere
This was a production that didn't stand still, literally. Manchester's Victorian Upper Campfield Market Hall, which is not currently in active use, was the setting for The Passion. This collaboration between Streetwise Opera, which works with homeless people and award-winning ensemble, The Sixteen, was an abridged, fully-staged version of Bach's oratorio St Matthew Passion.
The evening opened with a van driving into the hall, out of which the followers of Jesus emerged. It was an appropriate means of delivery for a market setting but was, perhaps, also an allusion to the refugee crisis.
From then on, we, the audience sidestepped each other, TV cameras and the performers who walked through the crowd, as well as appearing on the platform-stages. The effect was something like being at a sports or rock concert where you're constantly being jostled. It felt very appropriate for the Easter story. It was as though we were part of a crowd who were witnessing epoch-changing events. This effect was added to by the presence of cameras, filming for BBC4. If the trial and crucifixion of Jesus took place today, it would no doubt be documented by individuals and media organisations.
The cast included performers who have experienced homelessness and the role of Jesus alternated between different individuals. The person playing Jesus wore a piece of blue cloth, when it was their turn. This took a little bit of getting used to but was handled in such a way as to not make it confusing. The effective use of non-professional performers was reminiscent of Pier Paolo Pasolini's highly regarded 1964 film, The Gospel According to St Matthew.
Abigail Kitching as Jesus. Photo by Graeme Cooper.
The director, Penny Woolcock, the workshop leaders and designer Dick Bird, deserve immense credit for putting together a 360 degree experience. It must have seemed a logistical nightmare when it was first conceived.
Joshua Ellicott gave a powerful and sustained vocal performance as the Evangelist, a role which is, in many ways, comparable to the function of a narrator or Greek chorus.
I was also very moved by Mezzo-Soprano Hannah Pedley's combination of singing technique and ability to convey emotion through her face and voice, in her role as one of the disciples. It was a spine-tingling moment when she and other soloists suddenly started singing, from behind where I was standing.
The conclusion of the performance was a new 'resurrection' finale, written by Sir James MacMillan, in collaboration with the Streetwise Opera performers, with every word of the text coming from the group. The Streetwise performers were joined on the stage by The Sixteen and the soloists for the chorus.
The 'resurrection' finale. Photo by Graeme Cooper.
It is an impossible task to equal the sublime heights of Bach's music but the resurrection chorus succeeded in bringing the production to a rousing end. Neither the finale or the abridgement of the oratorio by Harry Christophers CBE, debased the whole experience.