An Annapolis Chorale performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" showcased historic St. Anne's Episcopal Church's restored look Saturday.
In this beautifully refurbished setting that cost more than $1 million, the beginning of Holy Week was celebrated with Bach's majestic oratorio, sung to words of the Gospel describing Christ's betrayal, arrest, trial, crucifixion and entombment.
St. Anne's dates to Bach's era - the original church was built on the site in 1692, seven years after the composer's birth. The current building is its third on the Church Circle site, and dates to 1858.
To add to the historical richness, the chorale's music director, J. Ernest Green, presented Bach's oratorio much as it was originally done at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, during Holy Week in 1729. The congregation was invited to sing certain passages along with the chorus.
Bach's majestic work resembles opera in dramatic terms, with its powerful, transcending story. The "St. Matthew Passion" progresses beyond drama to a profound religious experience.
Wagnerian in its 3 1/2 -hour length, the "St. Matthew Passion" nonetheless tells the crucifixion story economically. The narrative is sung in recitative by the narrator Evangelist with quotations from Jesus, Peter, Pontius Pilate and others in arias or choruses portraying major events.
On Saturday, the opening chorus, "Come ye daughters, share my mourning," signaled what was to follow. From the outset, this enormous theme was powerfully conveyed with heartfelt expression by the chorale's Chamber Chorus in dialogue with the Annapolis Chamber Orchestra and children's Ripieno Chorus, made up of singers from St. Anne's Junior Choir and Severn School's middle school.
Green assembled a fine cast of soloists - in the all-important role of the narrator Evangelist, tenor Vijay Ghosh sang the recitatives expressively, with little apparent effort. Ghosh grew more eloquent in the second half of the oratorio. His duets with baritone Scott Root, who played Jesus, were compelling in their grasp of the text and intense emotion.
Strong in the role of Jesus, Root combined great dignity and sublime compassion. His strong baritone voice was perfectly suited to the role, and combined with his skilled acting produced a moving portrayal. Root also seemed to grow more eloquent during the second half. When he sang the Hebrew words, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" ("My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"), he invested them with the innate majesty of ancient Judaism.
High drama was interspersed and enhanced by the reflective arias, as when Pontius Pilate's interrogation of Jesus was interrupted by soprano Carolene Winter's gorgeous "Aus Liebe" ("For Love"), which seemed to overflow with poignant reflection and sublime tenderness.
The Annapolis Chamber Orchestra set a brisk pace with dance-like rhythms, supporting the poetic text and intensifying all the emotion.
At times it played frantically to produce nearly terrifying waves of melody, then tenderly in support of the singers, with the musicians adding intensity to the relationships between the soloists and chorus.