Music & Dance Review: ST. MATTHEW PASSION (LA Opera)

Post image for Music & Dance Review: ST. MATTHEW PASSION (LA Opera)

by Tony Frankel on March 18, 2022

in Dance,Music,Theater-Los Angeles


It’s been a busy time in Los Angeles for the visiting dance company Hamburg Ballet. First, its company debut performance at The Music Center, Bernstein Dances, based on the music and spirit of the multi-talented composer Leonard Bernstein, was a truly enjoyable evening. But last Sunday, the company joined forces with LA Opera to perform Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, and it proved to be a very long evening — literally and emotionally.

Marc Jubete
The Hamburg Ballet Dancers

The majority of Bach’s choral music dates from 1723 onward during his long tenure as Cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig. It was during that lengthy period, which lasted until his death, that he composed more than 230 cantatas (many lost to posterity) and five “passions,” of which only two have survived — those of St. John and St. Matthew. The earlier St. John Passion is shorter and more overtly dramatic than the St. Matthew, which is in fact Bach’s longest and most ambitious work. With intermission, the night lasted nearly four hours, embracing a roster of talent: 42 dancers from Hamburg Ballett, six singers, The LA Opera Orchestra (conducted by James Conlon) and Chorus (under Grant Gershon), and the fantastic-as-always L.A. Children’s Chorus (under Fernando Malvar-Ruiz).

 Yaiza Coll and Aleix Martinez with the Hamburg Ballet ensemble

It turned out that the dance did not reinforce the music, which would have been much better-suited in Disney Hall rather than the colossal Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Artistic Director John Neumeier’s gorgeous, phenomenal dancers — dressed in loose cotton dresses for the women and Bahamian pants and tank-tops for the men — were a sight to behold. Neumeier’s company is known for narrative ballets, so it was affirming that there were so many different emotions played out by individual performers — grief, fear, rage, love and, yes, passion. Evermoving and reconfiguring groups, the memorization of hand moves alone floored me.

The Hamburg Ballet Dancers

In our current secular age a visitor from another planet might wonder why this conspicuously Christian story captures the hearts of nonbelievers, but it does. Watching these magnificent creatures — whether running through the orchestra aisles or simply watching other dancers — the answer is apparent to anyone who resonates to the depth of human feeling that permeates the unfolding tale as illuminated by both Bach and the actor/dancers, who personified the moral, philosophical and emotional dilemmas we all face in our lives.

The Hamburg Ballet Dancers

Sadly, the chorus was placed upstage behind the dancers, so they sounded almost muffled, largely due to the great orchestra from the pit overpowering them. Also in the pit on short risers were the singers, who I can report sounded amazing. Michael Sumuel (Jesus) and Joshua Blue (Evangelist) were joined by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and soprano Tamara Wilson (who blended angelically), tenor Ben Bliss and bass Kristinn Sigmundsson (who was indisposed before the show, causing a 15-minute delay). The three components of chorus, orchestra and soloists were on a different level physically and aurally.

Tenor Joshua Blue (Evangelist) and bass-baritone Michael Sumuel (Jesus)
Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham

So whereas simply listening to the Passion in a church or concert hall can be thrilling, this seemed to drone on and on and on. The same outfits, similar movement, and underwhelming music made this quite a slog to get through. Patrons left during the show and at intermission. What a shame given the uber-talented throngs on board.

The Hamburg Ballet Ensemble

photos by Kiran West

Bach’s St. Matthew Passion
LA Opera and Hamburg Ballet
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on March 27, 2022
for tickets, call 213.972.8001 or visit LA Opera


James Shelburne March 22, 2022 at 5:38 pm

From an inveterate concert, ballet and opera lover. Wonderful dancers, marvelous singers, under the genial baton of James Conlan, music of JS Bach. How can you miss? Well….you can. Arguably THE worst 4 hours of my concert going life. Just awful. And I’m very sorry for all involved. I was with a group in a bus else I would have joined those who stumbled out after 20 minutes.

Lisa Jordan March 27, 2022 at 8:38 am

As soon as the excruciating four hours of this “opera” came to an end, I turned to my husband and wondered aloud “Bach would be horrified!” The “ballet” was so ridiculously distracting, the immense talent and brilliance of the orchestra, vocals and the composer fell into background noise. The dancer playing Jesus must have been disappointed after being appointed the starring role only to find he would mostly stand in the corner and make slow motion high steps repeatedly. Not the dancers fault! This choreography was simply terrible. I really needed someone to interpret to me what the choreography intended. Because I was literally reminded of watching a class of kindergarteners asked to act out angry or sad or happy. Agree with the other comment. Awful.

Comments on this entry are closed.