Portland Baroque presents Bach’s St John Passion as part of Handel Festival

Monica Huggett. Photo Portland Monthly.

By Philippa Kiraly

We don’t often have the opportunity to hear either of the great Bach Passions, so we owe a big vote of thanks to the Early Music Guild for bringing us a stellar performance of the St. John Passion by Portland Baroque Orchestra, Les Voix Baroques, and Cappella Romana, Sunday afternoon at Town Hall.

Monica Huggett, violinist and artistic director of Portland Baroque, chose to perform it with a small orchestra of fourteen and small chorus of twelve.which included the soloists. While this Passion is shorter than the St. Matthew, two and a quarter hours including an intermission, this puts quite a burden on the singers who stood throughout, particularly tenor Charles Daniels, who sang all the chorales and choruses as well as the demanding role of the Evangelist.

With forces of this size, probably similar to those Bach had at his disposal, it was possible to hear every detail of the harmonies, and while words were often not very clear in the choral parts, every word the soloists sang was audible. Daniels was a superb Evangelist. Accompanied by continuo harpsichord and cello and standing on a podium in the midst of the orchestra, he was a compelling and consummate storyteller as well as fine singer.

Continuo for recitative has to be alert and agile, as the tempos and dynamics are those of an actor’s speech. Cellist Bill Skeen deserves special kudos for his work here. He flew in Sunday morning to replace the orchestra’s continuo cellist who had hand trouble, and performed without rehearsal, doing a remarkable job both in the recitative and when, playing viola da gamba, he performed the obbligato accompaniment to the alto aria, “Es is volbracht!” (“It is finished!”).

Each of the other soloists, all from Canada’s Les Voix Baroques, brought a beautiful voice and sensitive interpretation to his or her arias, including Matthew White’s clear and effortless alto and Shannon Mercer’s warm soprano. Tenor Jacques-Olivier Chartier, 22, is an Evangelist-in-waiting. The tone quality, the expressiveness, the technique are all there.

Baritone Tyler Duncan, as Pilate, had a voice to match: rich, forceful and authoritative. He was the ideal contrast to the other baritone, Joshua Hopkins, as Jesus.

It’s hard to describe exactly what it was about Hopkins’ voice and presentation which made him so perfect for the role. From his first notes, a serenity, a calm certainty came through a smooth, warm, caressing voice, and those qualities never waned.

Mostly the performance took place without conductor, but at times, Huggett would stop playing, leaving the first violin role to others, and direct from her chair with her bow for periods of time, going back to playing when she was satisfied.

With so small a group of players, it was possible to identify and enjoy some of the more unusual instruments, such as the two violas d’amore, like violas but with more strings and also sympathetic strings, sounding very similar. Also the oboes da caccia, quite similar to a baroque oboe but lower in pitch, and the violone, a double bass viola da gamba.

All of these different voices added to the variety and liveliness of an absorbing performance which engaged the listener completely.

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