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An Oberammergau in Manchester

29 April 2016

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STREETWISE OPERA, a homelessness charity that mounted a large-scale and moving presentation of J. S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion in the historic heart of Manchester in Passiontide, is in many respects a successor to the Oberammergau tradition.

Whatever community it invades — often in London, or in this case, working with the Booth Centre and the theatre and arts group Home — it drums up interest across a wide range of the community, disadvantaged or otherwise, stimulating enthusiasm and confidence, and strengthening their belief that they have a part to play, both as exemplars to the community and as capable artists in their own right.

Another special and endearing feature of Streetwise is choosing venues that have the common touch, and generating an atmosphere as surely as did the inhabitants and crowds in Oberammergau.

Streetwise chose to present the Passion in the Campfield Market, a section of the sprawling, sturdy complex of Victorian markets where, from the early 1880s, the raw sounds of vendors’ and middlemen’s calls and the sight of piled cabbages and tinkers’ implements prevailed, and where you would certainly rub shoulders with the common man.

The most obvious way in which the production made its point was this: Jesus was played not by one actor, but by many, in order, men and women, from several ethnic backgrounds, taking their turn to present Jesus in Gethsemane, or presiding over the Last Supper, or before Caiaphas and then Pilate.

The priests, too, were a splendid, motley crowd, in their garish temple headdress and visual and verbal tut-tuttings. Everyone was engaged, and no one was left out.

Much thought was given to the costumes (Dick Bird), a wondrous evocation, and unashamed to be traditional. The direction, too, under which sections of the narrative were presented in different parts of the market space, was painstakingly prepared and admirably managed by Penny Woolcock.

Her manipulation of the Evangelist, superb in every respect, not least in high register, was positively athletic. Three of the most dazzling moments came when a member of the Orchestra of The Sixteen, whether woodwind or solo violin, was detached from the ensemble and paraded around among the crowd like a grieving character or commentator.

Bach’s more complex arias, and the chorales, were supplied with polished singing from The Sixteen, which, under Harry Christophers, formed a key segment of this attractive alliance of forces. But one of the many surprises, whether in Peter’s denials, or the debate over Barabbas’s release, or the final desolate scene on the cross, was the fact that ordinary actors from the cast sang some of the solo passages — a bit rough and ready, perhaps, and yet hence underlining perfectly the crucial importance that this production was for the masses: that none should be excluded, and that raw, natural talent and the courage to participate lay right at the heart of this intense and moving staging.

Bach’s final chorus was replaced by a brand new conclusion composed, in collaboration with the participants, by Sir James MacMillan. No composer knows better how to see into the essence of a religious work, and to capture its spirit in musical statements that are both fresh and yet rooted in the past.

The cast rose to the moments, so that the excitement of the mass singing, with something of the football crowd about it, somehow encapsulated the pain and drama, but also hope, of what had preceded. The whole evening was a triumph for the participants, and brought a surge and uplift to an audience that, perhaps unsure what was it was going to encounter, was spellbound by the whole undertaking.

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