by Daniel Hathaway
When Apollo’s Fire presents its four area performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion later this week under the direction of Jeannette Sorrell, the burden of storytelling will fall to tenor Nicholas Phan.
Although Bach assigned individual parts to singers who will take the roles of Jesus, Pilate, and other individual characters, Phan will narrate the Passion of Jesus Christ from the Gospel According to John. Bach’s two extant Passion settings are the closest the composer came to writing opera, and Apollo’s Fire promises to offer an especially dramatic version of the St. John.
This will be Nicholas Phan’s second appearance in Northeast Ohio in the space of a month — he replaced John Relyea on the Oberlin Artist Recital Series earlier in February. We reached the tenor by telephone to ask him for his insights into Bach’s St. John Passion and his role as the Evangelist.
Daniel Hathaway: This will be your debut with Apollo’s Fire, but certainly not the first time you’ve sung the Evangelist in Bach’s Passions.
Nicholas Phan: I’ve sung both Passions many times before — both the Evangelist and the arias. It’s very familiar territory for me.
DH: What do you find different between the two pieces from the point of view of the Evangelist?
NP: From a technical standpoint, the tessitura in the Matthew is much higher. The vocal range in the John is high enough, but the Matthew just seems to get higher and higher as the piece progresses. Both works are very dramatic, but for me, the Matthew, with all its interpolated arias, is more meditative. That’s also why it seems longer. You get to ruminate on what’s happening during the course of the piece, while the John is really very much to the point.
I think people identify the John as the more dramatic of the two passions because the storytelling is so concise. The arias come at key points, but there aren’t a lot of breaks. As a result, the story just seems to flow more directly and more linearly. That has a lot to do with the difference in the Gospels themselves. The stories even start in different places. The Matthew goes into more detail before Judas and the High Priests arrive. The John starts with the moment of betrayal and goes through the scapegoating of Jesus all the way up to his burial.
DH: Speaking of the end of the John, having conducted the piece a number of times, I always wonder what’s going through the Evangelist’s mind during that last, very lengthy recitative.
NP: That’s actually one of my favorites, and I think it’s the most beautiful recitative in the whole piece. I look forward to it because it’s a really special moment with a lot of resolution. The message of the Passion is the possibility of redemption for all of us, and the last recitative is where its roots really lie. John talks about how Jesus’s body was wrapped in linen and spices in the tradition of the Jews. After hearing throughout the whole gospel that ‘the Jews screamed this,’ and ‘the Jews shouted that,’ here you have other Jews — the good guys in the piece — who are really taking care of the body of Jesus. To me, the way Bach sets that line is so melodic and beautiful. You realize that when he talks about the Jews he’s really talking about all of us. We’re the ones who scapegoated one of our own, and yet here is the possibility for redemption.
DH: How are the rehearsals being organized?
NP: Jeannette and I met very briefly about two weeks ago in Chicago to touch base and crash through some things, and we began rehearsing in earnest yesterday with only the Evangelist and continuo. She’s working with the choir separately, and gradually over the next few days we’ll all come together. There are at least two run-throughs built into the schedule.
DH: You’ll have four demanding performances in a row. How do you pace yourself?
NP: You just have to make sure you get sleep. There’s really nothing else you can do but drink water, sleep, and take care of yourself. It’s a big task, but I feel conditioned for it. It’s not uncommon for me to give four performances in a row — maybe not of something quite so intensive and time-consuming as a Passion — but we’re conditioned as professionals, and especially as singers who are used to the concert stage as opposed to the opera platform. Opera has a lot of days off built in. We don’t get that luxury, because that’s not the way that orchestras work. I kind of prefer it that way — it keeps you in a groove. You get yourself going and keep following the flow of the energy instead of having to restart after shutting down.
DH: After Cleveland, you’ll be touring the St. John.
NP: Yes, first to Trinity Wall Street in New York, then to SUNY Purchase. There’s a beautiful concert hall there where I recorded my second solo CD, so I’m looking forward to singing there again. The acoustics are so special that a lot of people record there. And it’s just far enough outside New York City that you can concentrate. Then we come back to the Midwest to end the tour in Ann Arbor.
DH: Any further reflections on Bach and the Passions?
NP: The John is obviously the precursor to the Matthew, but it’s a perfect piece in its own right. Both Passions are the highest examples of Bach’s devotion toward something larger than himself, and larger than all of us. It’s a really unique thing to experience these pieces. They’re the kind of works you live with an entire lifetime and yet you continue to find new layers in them.
I frequently work with Helmuth Rilling on these pieces. Every time we come back to them, he has something new to say — and he’s been living with this repertoire for 65 years. I marvel at this music and I really hope everybody comes and hears it because it’s some of the greatest art created in human history. It’s terrific to be able to hear it performed at this level and in this way. Northeast Ohio is lucky to have this opportunity.
Apollo’s Fire will present Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion on Thursday, March 3 at 7:30 pm at Bath Church (UCC) in Bath, on Friday, March 4 at 8:00 pm at First Baptist Church in Shaker Heights, on Saturday, March 5 at 8:00 pm at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Cleveland, and on Sunday, March 6 at 4:00 pm at St. Christopher’s Church in Rocky River. The work will be sung in German, with projected supertitles. Tickets are available online.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com February 29, 2016.
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