For some festive high culture in the run up to Easter, Folkoperan, the People’s Opera, has put on a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, making for both an intriguing and extremely Swedish night out, according to YLC’s Danny Chapman.
I am coming to the conclusion that there aren’t a lot of laughs in Swedish high art. Just think of the behemoths of Bergman and Strindberg. So if ALL you want is some fun, the Peoples Opera’s (Folkoperan) current concert won’t be for you. But if you fancy something different, yet very Swedish and with some excellent music, then book the remaining tickets now.
I say “concert” but to be honest I am not entirely sure how to categorise what I saw last night. And as I tend to find getting such basic information from Swedish websites is not usually forthcoming, I was not surprised this morning to see the Folk Opera website calling their St Matthew Passion a “performance concept.” Which doesn’t help clarify things.
It is mostly a concert though. In fact Bach’s St Matthew Passion is an oratorio, which means a large musical composition for orchestra choir and soloists. But interspersed throughout the performance , are interviews with some of the performers about aspects of their lives, projected on a huge screen. And there are also various other theatrical techniques being employed such as the live writing of letters, also projected on the giant screen. The performance is very experimental, to put it mildly.
Some of this works some of it doesn’t, often at the same time. Perhaps one of the most striking aspects is the dress of the performers. There must have been some 30+ singers on stage, mostly young, stood on three or four tiers, and seemingly dressed however they wanted to be.
There were primary colours galore with red and green t-shirts, sweaters, tie-tied loose trousers, highly patterned dresses and jeans. With a predominantly brightly lit stage this made for a very colourful scene. It also felt modern. Or did it feel like it was trying too hard to be modern?
Because I also had the distinct feeling I had been transported back to a BBC studio in the 1970s and was watching some worthy attempt to make the classics relevant. And this seems very Swedish to me. The desire to make everything relevant, rather than just enjoy something for its inherent beauty. Indeed, Folkoperan say on their website that they “are driven by a desire to renew the art of opera and reflect our times by being open to different expressions…”
Located on Hornsgatan on Södermalm, Folkoperan was founded in the 1970s and has garnered much respect and popularity in part on account of its intimate stage and unconventional productions. They say on their website that their vision is “Opera for all” (the ticket prices don’t exactly reflect this though are still much cheaper than most opera houses) and they sing in Swedish to come closer to their audience.
Bach’s St Matthew Passion was originally sung in German, and as most opera is in German or Italian, the language shouldn’t be too much of a problem to non-Swedish speakers. In fact the text being sung at any given time is projected on the big screen, which stretches the entire width of the stage above the performers. So if you speak a little Swedish you should easily be able to understand the texts.
Indeed Bach’s St Matthew Passion is actually Chapters 26 and 27 of the Gospel of St Matthew set to music. This gospel is the first book of the new testament and these chapters are about the last days of Jesus’s life including the passion of Christ and his death. Written in 1727, and meant to be performed on Good Friday, Bach’s oratorio is widely considered as one of the masterpieces of classical sacred music.
And Bach’s St Matthew Passion is particularly appropriate for Sweden because of its extensive use of chorales (hymns traditionally sung by large congregations). The Swedes love their choirs. And this of course is the highlight of the evening.
The other main aspect of the performance was the airing of interviews with half a dozen of the performers, in which they talk about personal tales connected with forgiveness, guilt, pain, fear, loneliness, love, and joy. The Swedes do like to beat themselves up.
Now my Swedish isn’t really up to understanding these monologues. Which didn’t help. But I got the gist. And I am afraid I found them to be increasingly long, serious, done in a pretty amateurish daytime TV kind of way, and by the last couple, frankly boring. I was told though by Swedes in my party that some of this was very moving.
Fortunately the early baroque music and the vast number of singers, consisting of an opera troupe and church choir, made up the bulk of the evening’s “performance,” providing a wonderful evening of music.
And despite my criticisms of the other aspects of the evening, these still made for a fascinating night, and gave me some more insights into the country I now live in. Not a lot of laughs perhaps, but experimental, full of Bergmanesque introspective concerns about guilt and pain, snappily dressed and full of joyous song. What better way to mark Easter in Stockholm!
The Peoples Opera’s St Matthew Passion remaining performances are on 17th, 18th,19th and 20 April. Visit the website for tickets.
Featured Image: Frida Marklund. Additional Images: Markus Gårder.