I want to say that the Philadelphia Orchestra's Good Friday performance of The St. Matthew Passion raised my spirits and refreshed my soul, or at least put me in an otherwordly frame of mind, but I'd be exaggerating, if not quite lying. I can't put my finger on why: an undoubted masterpiece (the Sistine Chapel of music) presented by a world-class ensemble, and I wasn't bored for a second, yet the whole affair seemed rather workmanlike and uninspired. It was all too much to absorb, and the essential message seemed to be, "Jesus died because for all the bad things you've done, and he did it without a word of complaint. So if you happen to be suffering, too, you should have the good grace to shut up about it."
I have now seen Yannick Nézet-Séguin in person twice, and I have not been transported either time. There's something stodgy about his conducting, I find, despite his dynamism on the podium and the well-publicized eloquence of his gestures.
Still, there was some beautiful singing, and some beautiful playing, and at times, James Alexander's unobtrusive stage directions did enhance the storytelling. Tenor Andrew Staples, as the Evangelist, was given the freedom of the stage. He made a compelling narrator, ringing and expressive, and he worked the crowd like a Bible belt preacher.
I was also taken with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill. For me, the highlight of her evening was the aria “Erbarme Dich, Mein Gott.” The violin obbligato was played by concertmaster David Kim, and Cargill sang directly to him, swaying in front of his stand while hugging her score to her breast. It was a true, loving duet, and I wanted it to go on forever.