As the Carmel Bach Festival presented Johann Sebastien Bach’s Saint John Passion on Sunday afternoon at Sunset Center, we witnessed from beginning to end a dramatic and convincing performance by the chorale, orchestra and soloists led by Paul Goodwin (with valuable assistance from Andrew Megill and John Koza).
Beyond its expressiveness and fine vocal command, the chorale’s precise diction effectively enhanced this great work’s drama and subtle meanings. The chorale’s baroque phrasing, although at times imitative of instrumental passages, had a convincing style of human expressiveness, especially in Her unser Herrscher, Christus, der uns selig macht and Ruht wohl, ihr beilingen Gebeine. The blending of soprano and altos sections was nicely balanced, as was the blending of tenor and basses, if sometimes the sopranos seemed too small in sound to be leading the melodies and left the listener wishing for more voices to balance the entire ensemble. However, the beautiful singing of sopranos made up for any lack of fullness and the men’s voices rang through with energy and conviction.
Paul Goodwin’s conducting was elegant, clear and precise. In conveying a specific dramatic character for each recitative, chorale and aria, his leadership encouraged high levels of vitality and meaning, especially in the second half of the Passion. The orchestra masterfully followed many tempo and mood changes to clearly reflect the heightening of drama as the oratorio progressed. The evangelist role of Thomas Cooley demanded a wide variety of meanings, moods and tempi in his recitatives, and Mr. Goodwin’s fine musicianship enhanced a moving and colorful performance by Mr. Cooley, while clearly keeping the instrumentalists together whatever the musical challenge.
Soprano Dominique Labelle sang Ich folge dir gleichfalls with precision and complete vocal control, while at the same time we were able to feel her passion. Although her baroque style kept her voice from freely ringing, her unique and delicate phrasing was remarkable. Bass Dashon Burton’s singing was completely elegant whether singing recitative or aria, and his remarkably legato singing was a welcome contrast to the other soloists who were adhering to baroque ideas or performing the angular melodic shapes of recitatives. The combination of voices, vocal techniques and styles made for a very satisfying performance. It also made the listener aware of the many details of historically informed performances (HIP), such as the texture of the gut strings for the stringed instruments and baroque bowings.
There was so much to enjoy in this performance of the Saint John Passion.