St Matthew Passion, Brisbane Festival (QLD)

It may be Bach heard through different languages, instruments and times but the glory still resonates.
St Matthew Passion, Brisbane Festival (QLD)

Mandisi Dyantyis plays Christ in Isango Ensemble's St Matthew Passion. Image supplied.

Taking in the final day of Christ’s life, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion is already an ambitious production but Isango Ensemble add in South African traditional songs, an urban setting and a marimba orchestra that take this iconic work to new heights.

It begins with a simple set – a corrugated iron backdrop hemmed on either side by the marimba orchestra – that emphasises the sound and the performers, who come on casually chatting. The music begins switching between Bach’s cantatas and traditional songs with English speech drawn from the Chester Cycle of Mystery Plays. The concert hall’s pipe organ towering over the production seems distant from this re-imagined Bach.

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But Isango Ensemble – led by director Mark Dornford-May – are confident in this kind of reworking of classics. Previously they’ve taken on The Magic Flute – also transposed for marimbas – and La Boheme to audiences around the world. This production played only once in Australia at Brisbane Festival, which was only the second time it had played after a world premiere at Bergen International Festival in Norway.

At the centre of this work is music director Mandisi Dyantyis, who plays a black leather jean-clad Christ. It’s an inspired performance with his Christ possessing a drooping dignity – both exhausted by the world and bearing himself through it knowing his end. Speaking English, Xhosa and Afrikaans, this Christ reminds us of Steve Biko who similarly was captured by police and beaten for being a political activist. Elsewhere there are nods to the contemporary – Pilate is a corrupt general washing his hands of the blood, Christ receives a bracelet from God to signify their connection, and Judas wears a red leather jacket.

Musically, St Matthew Passion was most enlivened when African music and dance is employed. As Christ is taken to the cross, there is a mad burst of shouting, bashing on plastic bins and tin drums that feels like genuine chaos overtaking the world. Through it Dyantyis’ Christ maintains his grace even as nails are driven home.

The story is so familiar it could be followed through different languages and sustained with the simple props – a silver ladder is drawn up as the cross, a white tablecloth is drawn out for the last supper – because the symbols are instantly recognisable. Crucifixion nails are driven in with a clatter of the tin drum and as he is crucified, Bach’s choral O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig rises to return the work to its origins.

Bach purists may be disappointed by the omissions – at 70 minutes it is much shorter than the original – and additions – Christ opens by referring to Lazarus, for example – but this is more than the sum of its borrowing. A new production has risen.

4.5 stars out of 5 ★★★★☆

St Matthew Passion
Production by Isango Ensemble
Director: Mark Dornford-Mayand
Music director: Mandisi Dyantyis
Music by Johann Sebastian Bach, St Matthew Passion, BWV 244, arranged by Mandisi Dyantyis and Mark Dornford-May
8 September 2019
Concert Hall, QPAC, Brisbane QLD
Tickets $65

The writer was a guest of Brisbane Festival and Brisbane Marketing.