BACH: St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244
:"DIE THOMANER" - A Year in the Life of the St. Thomas Boys
Choir Leipzig (a film by Paul Smaczny & Günter Attein)
SAINT-SAËNS: Samson et Dalila
Bach's mighty sacred oratorio St. Matthew Passion has a eight-century association with Leipzig. Bach conceived the work with the architecture and acoustics of St. Thomas Church in mind. The first performance was Good Friday, April 11, 1727 in the Thomaskirsche where the composer was Kantor of the School and director of the chorus. Revised versions were presented in the venue during following years, and performances there have become a tradition reflected in this recent recording performed April 5/6 2012 with the Thomanerchor, soloists and members of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra directed by Georg Christoph Biller who is now Kantor of the Choir. All of the soloists (except for soprano Christina Landshamer, who also is heard in Riccardo Chailly's recent Leipzig recording of the work) sang with the Choir, and three are graduates. The performance is presented in the loft of the magnificent church and there is little of the antiphonal effect Bach might have wished. This is a glorious performance of this music, vividly stunning with imaginative camera work, and excellent sound. There are dozens of recordings of this music, most of which use a rather large chorus to great effect—I treasure the 1939 live recording with Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam. However all who love Bach's masterpiece surely should investigate this "authentic" performance.
And you also might look into the full-length ((114 min) documentary by Paul Smaczny and Günther Attein about a year in the life of the St. Thomas Boys Choir, a beautifully photographed and produced trip through daily life experiences of these young men who have been selected from hundreds of applicants to be in the honored group. This is no picnic for them—they obviously have to work and study very hard indeed. As a bonus we have brief excerpts from the St. Matthew Passion performance mentioned above.
In 1808, the Badisches Staatstheater was built by architect Friedrich Weinbrunner near the Karlsruhe castle. A fire in 1847 had more than 60 casualties as people could not escape from the burning building because all of the doors opened inward; apparently as a result of this, worldwide building regulations require all doors to open outward. Today this theater presents a wide variety of performances including opera, and one of them can be seen on this DVD filmed in October 2010—and I doubt it will be remembered as one of their better productions. Samson and Delilah is a noble opera on the biblical story of Samson's unfortunate love for the voluptuous Delilah, and the return of his strength as he destroys the pillars of the temple resulting in his enemies and himself, being crushed. This new ill-fated production is the brain child of tenor José Cura, who at the beginning of his career showed great promise. Over the years, he has recorded several complete operas, and some of his DVDs have been unenthusiastically mentioned on this site: Otello (REVIEW), Edgar (REVIEW) and Andrea Chénier (REVIEW). His voice still retains its raw energy, but as the years go by his singing becomes more insecure, obvious from this performance. Cura has updated the story so the setting is a deserted oil field with three large oil drills that no longer function. Some performers wear modern costumes, although it is difficult to see very much as the lighting usually is very dark. The famous Bacchanale doesn't feature dancing, just a few confused people wandering around. And at the end, as Samson is supposed to topple the temple, he uses slack ropes (!), and of course there is no temple. The singing throughout is unexceptional. Russian mezzo At the beginning of her career, Julia Gertseva rightfully seems edgy as the seductive Delilah. She has impressive crtedentials, and I'd like to hear her under other circumstances. Cura made a fine recording of this opera in 1998 with Colin Davis on the podium, far removed from his singing on the new version. Video is disappointing, stereo audio adequate at best (there is no 5.0 track). There program booklet does not provide track listing, and program notes are limited to comments by Cura. If you are interested in this opera, try the stunning Met performance conducted by James Levine, with Plácido Domingo and Olga Borodina.
R.E.B. (October 2012)