This Passion has two choirs and two orchestras, and some smaller groups of instrumentalists who play continuo for the solo pieces. The piece is a mixture of narration (the tenor evangelist); acting out of events by combinations of soloists and choir; choir chorales meditating on the proceedings, which the congregation was intended to sing as well; and choruses, which are the big opening parts, when the choir plays the angry crowd, etc.. St. Matthew in particular starts with Passover and goes through Jesus being entombed.
My point of view: Early/baroque is my favorite genre of music to listen to and to sing. I sing with a small semi-professional choir of about forty people; we perform quite a lot of baroque music, a good proportion of it Bach; our conductor is also the conductor for the Philadelphia Bach Festival. We use historical performance practices as much as possible. Back in 2003, I performed the Matthäus Passion for the first and so far only time, but back then, the choir had a different conductor and had about 100 people. My experience of the Orchestra performance is likely more influenced, instead, by having sung Bach's St. John Passion last spring. Having heard all that, you will likely guess that I prefer my Baroque music to be very, well, baroque in style. And you'd be right.
Overall, the sound was gorgeous, smooth and mellow as the Orchestra always is, particularly in the violin-interior acoustic of Verizon Hall. I loved the sound, but I didn't feel like it was really Bach. It was a modern interpretation of Bach, with louder, higher-pitched modern instruments. Fair enough. The main difference to my ear was that everything was too legato and sustained. The notes were held too long and too smoothly, resulting in a smooth wash that obscured the individual phrases and that "mathematical" quality people ascribe to Bach. To me, a big part of baroque style is there's a sense of breathing and speaking, a sort of naturalistic phrasing and "dying away" that allows for breaks in the sound. So though I enjoyed it quite a bit, I wondered how much more I would have liked it done in a more period style.
My favorite soloist was Foster-Williams, and it did not surprise me when I checked his bio and found that he sings music from that period quite a lot! I also thought the evangelist, Staples, was really excellent in his arias as well as the substantial work of narration. The soprano, the mezzo, and Jesus were, I felt, all very good, but they didn't reach out and grab me in the same way. Foster-Williams strode out and demanded attention - "Listen to what I have to say!" The others did not do this to nearly the same extent, though they had operatic skills in facial expression and movement of their bodies. One technical thing I noticed in the soprano/mezzo duet was how meticulously the two singers synchronized their vibrato; my mouth was open at how skilled that was. Jesus, however, was several times nearly overpowered by orchestra one; I thought that the violins needed to tone it down. I thought orchestra two was much better throughout at both baroque style and at playing accompaniment.
The choir was excellent, and I thought the chorister who played Pilate was particularly impressive. I was very appreciative that Nézet-Séguin had clearly paid a lot of attention to following the text when phrasing the chorales; in one, he even added a significant Grand Pause at an appropriate moment.
Which leads me to the theatrical element of the production. There was a lot of stage business with soloists making eye contact with each other and moving around the stage, colored sashes for the different characters who had dialogue, choir putting their folders in front of their face to indicate a character or scene change, etc.. I confess I found it all a bit distracting, and I closed my eyes a few times to shut out the visuals, particularly when the choristers were moving their folders up and down to indicate turmoil (I think). This might be an artifact of me being a singer; the choreography was irrelevant to me, I wanted to immerse in the music. My companion found the stage business appropriate and well-done, and it was; I just couldn't get into it. I did like the long, lights-out-except-for-red pause after the death of Jesus, which was very effective.
A couple of stage business bits almost made me laugh. Two of the soloists, the mezzo and the bass-baritone, had moments of purely instrumental solo within arias; they approached and then stared at the instrumental soloist. It felt like a weird fourth-wall thing. Only it isn't fourth-wall if they're all on stage together. Whatever. In my head, I heard, "What the hell is that thing, intruding on my aria? I never noticed it before!"
The other stage business I found humorous was the Caressing of the Barenreiter. During the introduction, Jesus gave each soloist a score (the blue-covered Barenreiter edition, the standard one nearly all singers use). Even when not referring to the score, the soloists carried them around, clutched them to their chests whether open or closed, caressed their covers...I wasn't sure if the score was meant to represent a Bible, or Jesus, or was just kept handy in case someone forgot the words. Have you cuddled your Barenreiter today? (I finally decided that was the real reason behind Jesus' crucifixion - when he handed out those scores, he broke Union stagehand rules.)
Regardless of all my nitpicking, I hugely enjoyed the performance, particularly my favorite bits: the tenor/choir "Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen" and "Komm süsses Kreuz" to the end. I would have been happy to see more than one performance! Despite differences in interpretation from my ideal, it was Bach. Nom.
BTW, The Philadelphia Bach Festival begins soon! B Minor Mass on May 5th!