Bach revival

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 perspective on the Passion of Christ

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.”

One of the “most brutal musical works of all time”

The collaboration between Simon Rattle, Peter Sellars and the Berliner Philharmoniker has created many highlights. As Artist in Residence, the American director staged, among other things, the enigmatic, dreamlike soulscapes of Claude Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande. This was followed in the 2016/2017 season by the performance of John Adams’ Passion oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary, where the audiences in Berlin experienced him as a librettist, and Sellars’ apocalyptic interpretation of György Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, then in October 2017, the semi-staged performance of Leoš Janáček’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen.

For the first time since the end of his tenure as the orchestra’s chief conductor, Sir Simon Rattle returns to the Berliner Philharmoniker – with Peter Sellars and Bach’s St John Passion. For the conductor and the director, the piece remains highly topical: for Sir Simon Rattle, it is one of “the most combative and brutal musical works of all time”, a piece about abuse of power and lack of a sense of responsibility. According to Peter Sellars, Jesus is not the main character, but serves merely as a foil for our own story: “Bach wants to show the conflict of people whose hearts know what is right, but who are under pressure from society or who fear for their reputation”. Whether Peter or Pilate, both men make wrong choices and they are aware of it. Sellars’ conclusion: “This is not a piece for people who think they know everything, but for seekers, for people who start from the beginning over again and again.”

“St. Matthew Passion” 2010: Mark Padmore and Peter Sellars
(Photo: Salzburg Easter Festival)
“St. John Passion” 2014
(Photo: Monika Rittershaus)