The Gospel stories of Christ’s final days do not lack for drama. Creative artists of all varieties have been illustrating this narrative of betrayal, mob justice, suffering, and redemption for centuries. On Friday, the forces of the Boston Early Music Festival, under the leadership of co-directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, performed their own act of artistic resurrection by presenting a little-known setting of the Easter story by German composer Johann Sebastiani (1622-83).
Completed in 1663, this subtle, spare, and sublime Passion prefigures J. S. Bach’s more lavish and familiar “St. Matthew Passion,” first heard 66 years later. BEMF’s polished and lovingly executed performance with period instruments not only made a strong case for the piece. But also it provided rare insight into opera’s early sources.
Where Bach uses numerous soloists, a double choir, and large orchestra in a massive work lasting over three hours, Sebastiani tells his tale more succinctly with a mere handful of vocal soloists and a small instrumental ensemble (two violins, four viola da gamba, two theorbos, and one player on harpsichord and organ). Where Bach repeats and draws out lines of text to sometimes exasperating length, Sebastiani doesn’t linger over phrases or words. The narrator Evangelist, a tenor, propels and dominates the action, singing in recitative style with polyphonic accompaniment from the viols. Jesus (a low bass) is more sung about than singing. Judas is a male countertenor. Sebastiani’s most significant innovation was to insert Lutheran chorale tunes (sung by a mezzo-soprano, with organ) at strategic moments, expressing the emotions emerging from the text.
Originally, Sebastiani’s Passion was performed in church, with readings or sermons between musical sections. O’Dette and Stubbs shrewdly replaced the spoken interludes with musical ones: three works by Sebastiani’s contemporaries Johann Rosenmuller, David Funck and Johann Christoph Bach.
As the Evangelist, renowned tenor James Taylor sang with forthright lyricism and focused pitch. Danielle Reutter-Harrah brought to the chorale sections a compassionate calm and a warm, glowing tone. Sitting at center stage, Joao Fernandes made Jesus a forceful dramatic and vocal presence. Countertenor Ian Howell, tenor Jason McStoots, and bass John Taylor Ward also made fine contributions. Conducting from the theorbo (a multi-stringed bass lute), O’Dette led his responsive musicians with an easy paternal command.