From Bach to Janáček

Peter Sellars, Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker

Sir Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)

A long-term artistic and personal friendship connect Peter Sellars and Sir Simon Rattle. They met each other when they were young at a dinner given by mutual friends where they became at once entangled in a passionate conversation about music. Fifteen years after this event, their first collaboration came to fruition: a new production of Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande in Amsterdam. Since then, director and conductor have realised a series of spectacular projects. “Peter has a way of tricking people, bringing out their deepest emotions,” says Simon Rattle. Sellars, on the other hand, admires the way the conductor is able to draw from people an unexpected personal connection to the music.

A new look at Bach’s Passions

Peter Sellars’ main concern with the works he brings to the stage is to give the audience the impetus to open up the political and social issues of our time, to think about them and to look at them from new and different perspectives. The director draws from his own personal experiences. As a 21-year-old, Sellars discovered Bach’s cantatas – and was convinced that his compositions were very abstract. Only ten years later did he realise that “Bach was telling of lived experience!” This insight made him the ideal director for one of the most important projects that Sir Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker have realised in recent years: the staged performances of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions.

Moving and intense

The collaboration between Sellars and the orchestra began in 2006 with the production of John Adams’ opera The Flowering Tree, in which the director had also contributed to the libretto. This was followed in April 2010 by the St. Matthew Passion which was hailed by the press as the “most moving music event of the season”. The American director’s reading does not place the figure of Jesus in the foreground, but illuminates the conflicts of the people around him. “There is no mercy, no love, no understanding among the people. The performance sings and acts this bitter aspect to the forefront” (Berliner Morgenpost). After a revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 2013, the St. John Passion, which was also acclaimed by public and press, followed in 2014. Peter Sellars achieves the intensity of his productions by paying attention to every detail. Even the smallest solos and the smallest of gestures are rehearsed meticulously. “For me, it’s often the tiny, little things that unlock the secret door. In art, like life, it is the little things that make the difference.”

Mystical and mysterious

The collaboration between Simon Rattle, Peter Sellars and the Berliner Philharmoniker reached a further high point in the 2015/2016 season when the director, in his role as Artist in Residence, explored the secrets of other spiritual worlds. Together with the students of the Berliner Philharmoniker’s Karajan Academy, he presented Kaija Saariaho’s La Passione de Simone. The oratorio about the French philosopher, mystic and social revolutionary Simone Weil was also produced by the director at the premiere of the work in 2006. The semi-staged realisation of Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande after Maurice Maeterlink’s symbolist play of the same name provided an insight into enigmatic and dream-like psychological landscapes. The title roles were sung by Magdalena Kožená and Christian Gerhaher. “What a Debussy evening at the Philharmonie!” wrote the review in the Berliner Morgenpost which praised the new approach of Sellars and Rattle to the work which they interpreted as an expressive nocturne.

Last season, audiences in Berlin also experienced him as a librettist in the performance of John Adams’ Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary. As a director, the American also impressed audiences with his apocalyptic vision of György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre. And now the final collaboration with Peter Sellars in the Simon Rattle era is the semi-staged performance of Leoš Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen, a wonderful parable on life and the eternal cycle of nature. With its fairytale-like, luminous music, its poetry and its comedy, the piece is one of the Czech composer’s greatest masterpieces.

“St. Matthew Passion” 2010: Mark Padmore and Peter Sellars
(Photo: Salzburg Easter Festival)
Expressive: “St. Matthew Passion” 2013
(Photo: Monikar Rittershaus)
“St. John Passion” 2014
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
2015: Rehearsals for Claude Debussy’s “Pelléas et Mélisande” Symbolist dream worlds: Magdalena Kožená and Christian Gerhaher as Mélisande and Pelléas
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
Apocalyptic visions: György Ligeti’s “Le Grand Macabre” (2017)
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
“Le Grand Macabre”: Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars at rehearsals
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)
2017: Gerald Finley as Forester in Janáček's »Cunning Little Vixen«