MasterVoices, the New York City chorus formerly known as the Collegiate Chorale, marked its 75th season with a performance of Bach’s Saint John Passion at Carnegie Hall the other night. Accompanied by New York Baroque Incorporated, the small period-instrument orchestra led by Wen Yang, and by the audience during the chorales, the large chorus and a group of superb soloists conveyed John’s version of the torturous story of the Passion through a new English translation that helped make Bach’s nearly 300-year-old oratorio a powerful operatic drama for any age.
Tenor Michael Slattery wrote the translation and took on the narrator role of the Evangelist. With a fluid baritone-to-countertenor range, he made the many recitatives seem effortless. Leipzig churchgoers of Bach’s time would have heard these episodes, in German, set to this music at Good Friday services, with a sermon between the oratorio’s two parts instead of an intermission. But the complex beauty of Bach’s music transcends religious feeling or belief to speak to the fundamentals of the human condition: loyalty and grief, family and friendship, cruelty and mercy, tribalism and violence.
The enthusiastic though snowstorm-thinned audience received the entire libretto and the music for the chorales. Congregations of Bach’s time could sing along with Bach’s masterful settings of those familiar hymn tunes and texts, and so did many of us, making the concert a more communal event than is usual outside of Christmastime Messiah singalongs.
But these joyous interludes punctuate an exceedingly troubled story. Choral director Ted Sperling brought out the tortuous drama from the chorus in its most vivid role, the people who condemn Jesus and bring him to Pilate for judgment, sung with the sharp, booming force of a terrifying mob mentality as Bach intended (though Slattery’s translation de-emphasizes the antisemitism in the original text’s depiction of the Jewish people and priests). Adam Lau’s operatically powerful bass and Jesse Blumberg’s milder baritone suited their roles of Pilate and Jesus respectively.
The other four soloists were just as strong in a variety of ways. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford gave the alto parts and her two arias a smoothly beautiful tone and remarkable sonority. Delicate harmonies and counterpoint from the oboes heightened the first, and plaintive accompaniment by the viola da gamba helped drive the second with its dramatic mid-song pivot from mournful to triumphant.
Soprano Jennifer Zetlan varied her approach with the context, with a fluttery, light-opera tone in her joyful first aria, and then, in one of the evening’s most powerful moments, a rich and celestial quality to announce and mourn Jesus’ death. There, the weaving of her solo voice with the folky strains from the woodwinds sounded divine indeed.
Tenor Ben Bliss conveyed a feeling of self-flagellation with the stricken aria “Ah, my sin,” then impressed even more with his long aria describing Jesus’ bloodstained back (though something sounded out-of-tune in the accompaniment). Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch did strong, smoothly resonant work amid the rushing rhythms of his dramatic aria in dialogue with the chorus (“Fly now!”).
The soloists shone both separately and in concert, as if distilling the work of the huge chorus behind them. I didn’t want the penultimate piece, “O Sleep,” sung by the chorus and then the soloists in counterpoint, to end. Throughout, Sperling drew an emotionally and dramatically aware collective sound from the many voices of MasterVoices, and expert, tasteful work from the players of New York Baroque Incorporated – proving, if it needed proving, that Bach’s masterworks, religious or not, can speak to modern polyglot audiences with as much human meaning as ever.