From the programme booklet
Conductor Alessandro De Marchi in Conversation
Dorothea Hartmann: The task of “conducting” means something different for baroque music, especially for the St Matthew Passion, than it does for 19th-century opera. How can one describe the function and position of the conductor here?
Alessandro De Marchi: When performing the St Matthew Passion as is usual today – meaning with two orchestras positioned side by side – one is ultimately conducting one large ensemble. One has plenty of contact with the musicians, the choirs and soloists. We are modelling this staged version, however, on Bach’s historical situation. The inspiration for our setup is taken from St. Thomas’ Church in Leipzig. We know that the Passion was not performed with two orchestras next to each other. Instead, there was one orchestra and choir at the front, near the altar, and the second orchestra and the organ were located high up on a loft on the south side of the church, the so-called “swallow’s nest”. So there were no stereophonics from left and right, but from the front and back. We expanded this basic idea of historical performance practice and have chosen a setup resembling a cross. Of course, this means that the conductor cannot be placed directly in front of the musicians, but must be located elsewhere. Now the conductor is far away, equidistant from everyone. In terms of conducting, this means that during a performance, one is mostly coordinating and less interpreting. Interpretation takes place during rehearsals: every individual, whether soloists or members of the choir or orchestra, must know exactly what to do. In the moment of the performance, the conductor can only coordinate, especially at such a large space as the Deutsche Oper Berlin. It’s a bit like controlling the movement of planes at an airport.
Dorothea Hartmann: Which brings us to the basic question of interpreting baroque music. It exists within a field of tension, between coordination and emotion, mechanics and feelings. How does one strike the right balance?
Alessandro De Marchi: You need both. Baroque music – especially by Bach – is built on the basis of rhetorical figures which are present in the text and in the music. These figures are meant to stir the so-called affects, i.e. the audience’s feelings, from sad to cheerful. There was, indeed, a catalogue of affects and a catalogue of musical figures which were meant to inspire these feelings.
Thus, Bach’s music is highly emotional. At the same time, it still needs to be coordinated. In this spirit, it is very important that every single word is taken seriously, as you would in a Schubert song, where every word has its own colour and its own expressivity. But of course there is another aspect behind it: mathematics. Bach was probably the last composer who had learned a very old tradition of counterpoint. The tradition originated in Flanders; Palestrina developed it further in Rome, and finally it spread throughout Europe, thanks to Italian teachers. So it was an international phenomenon. The foundation of this music is quasi-magical numbers. The composers had a kind of table, the “Tabula Mirifica”. This allowed them to compose impossible works. It is noticeable that Bach was an absolute master of this art. He was not only very strong in Latin, poetry and rhetoric, but his entire knowledge of harmony was incredible. Most of all, however, it was these mathematical possibilities of counterpoint that he had mastered, much better than other contemporaries.
It is obvious, for example, in some of the arias in which he unites two totally different worlds. There are arias which are basically perfect in and of themselves, e.g. the tenor aria “Ich will bei meinem Jesu wachen” with solo oboe, basso continuo and tenor. It could stand alone like that, but Bach constructs another chorus, a chorale alternating with the soloist. The St Matthew Passion is full of such excessive structures: elements which would have been totally sufficient for other composers are just woven masterfully by Bach into a counterpoint with other elements. There are all kinds of combinations: chorales with arias and solos, arias without basso continuo, chorales with variations, and the entire instrumentation is used in concertizing form at least once. It is truly a summary of existing possibilities during this epoch.
Dorothea Hartmann: How much of this music is musical theatre or opera-like?
Alessandro De Marchi: In many instances, you can tell that Bach would have liked to compose an opera. There is plenty of theatre in the arias, and the secco recitatives are often very theatrical, for example when the basses imitate an earthquake with lightning and thunder, or the chorus evokes a storm. It’s a similar effect as the tempest Rossini evokes in the orchestra in BARBIERE. These are standard effects in musical theatre. All his life, Bach wished he could compose an opera, but it was a career he could not pursue. Perhaps he didn’t have the right character, and his style was probably too complex for opera. In his time, Johann Adolph Hasse and also Carl Heinrich Graun were the great opera composers. To Bach, Hasse’s compositions were little more than simple songs. On the other hand, his contemporaries found Bach’s works far too complex and incomprehensible. To their ears, it was all a bit too much.
Dorothea Hartmann: Bach uses a three-dimensional building-block principle; the structure is imagined both spatially and with a certain depth. Hasse and Graun’s thinking is more two-dimensional, divided into foreground and background. Perhaps it is easier to transpose this onto a stage. Given this purely structural aspect, does the spatial solution for this production make sense?
Alessandro De Marchi: Yes, absolutely. Spreading the production throughout the space offers another, a third dimension. The result is far more than a conventional concert, in which the orchestras are positioned so closely together that true stereophony is impossible. But let’s stay with the three-dimensionality and complexity of the score: in all honesty, one must admit that hardly anyone is capable of understanding everything Bach is thinking at any given moment, and everything he simultaneously weaves together. We all are masters at concentrating first on one detail, then on the next… that means that the audience must be guided. And it is a great task to work with the musicians, the choir, the soloists, to shape the most important elements to stand out. Everyone must know exactly which element or motif must stand out at any given time, and when they are in the background.
Dorothea Hartmann: This results in something like a line of listening?
Alessandro De Marchi: Absolutely. Figures appear, cross each other’s paths, disappear again. It is a multi-dimensional game, and you must create transparency. It’s like photography: by manipulating the focus, you can bring something into the foreground or relegate it to the background.
Dorothea Hartmann: The acoustic of the Deutsche Oper Berlin plays into our hands here, because it doesn’t have the typical church acoustics, with too much reverberation. Does that make it easier to make music here?
Alessandro De Marchi: Yes, you have to make music here in a totally different way. In a large church, I conduct more slowly and demand short articulation, so that there aren’t too many sounds overlapping. Here, we need more tempo, also because it’s not a liturgical celebration, as it would be in church. It’s an opera stage, after all. Yet we try to create a little reverberation artificially: we imitate a slight church acoustic, meaning that we never let the sound end abruptly, but always give a little with the bow or breath.
Dorothea Hartmann: In this production, music and stage are even more closely intertwined than if we had a frontal stage. The concept of the staging also influences the musical setup. This is only possible if you work closely as a team. What’s your collaboration with Benedikt von Peter like?
Alessandro De Marchi: We complement each other well and have a lot of trust in each other. Surely this is also due to the fact that we’ve known each other forever. When I was working in Hamburg as a young conductor, he was an assistant director there. So we started out together. We learned a lot from one another. And we are both crazy enough to use spaces differently. I was doing that even before I ever met him: many years ago, I conducted Monteverdi’s ORFEO in Turin in this way, spreading the musicians throughout the entire space – connected on the diagonal. That was crazy. In Turin I also worked with Early Music specialists to perform Bach cantatas this way, and Mozart’s Coronation Mass as well, with three orchestras and two choirs, on two balconies. In Salzburg, they also did it in this way at the time, so it’s historical performance practice. In this spirit, Benedikt and I immediately understood one another. Now we are performing the St Matthew Passion with an extended space concept. Benedikt says it was my idea. I thought it was his.
Translation: Alexa Nieschlag