Well, almost anything. We were not quite ready for the utterly devastating performance that Mark Padmore gave as the Evangelist. In Sellars' concept - sometimes convincing, sometimes less so - the Evangelist carries everything, experiencing the emotions and traumas of each character, supporting them, leading them, suffering in their place. Christ - the astounding Christian Gerhaher - is a distant figure, seated above the orchestra and outside the action through the first half, then entirely off stage for his scant few phrases in the second. The Evangelist lives the drama and is its focal point. The beauty, nuancing, clarity and stillness of Padmore's voice would have been enough to carry the night on its own, but his every move magnetised us and convinced us that he felt every anguish, every burden and every lash. If the British music business had not already given him a virtual sainthood by repute, they certainly should now. (Gerhaher, of course, is just as magical, but has frustratingly little to sing.)
The staging has its ups and downs, many of them literal. A lot of rushing around is involved and sometimes one wished they'd keep still for a few minutes. Yet some extraordinary images unfolded that also enhanced the music at a profound level, notably through the interaction of the instrumental soloists with the singers, moments that carried a plethora of meanings. Sometimes the players seemed to represent the soul, the conscience or the better self; perhaps even God, or Bach in place of God? Magdalena Kozena sang 'Erbarme dich' kneeling at the feet of her violinist; Camilla Tilling in 'Aus liebe will mein Heiland sterben' stood in close quartet with her oboists and flautist; Emmanuel Pahud, no less, beside her right shoulder. Tenor Topi Lehtipuu stretched up towards an unattainable oboist in the organ inset; bass Eric Owens appeared to pray for mercy before a vengeful virtuoso fiddler.
Rattle's tempi were largely very brisk, sometimes too much so - occasionally I longed for an old-school influence to bring back a little more time for breath, contemplation and refulgence, since some of the intricate instrumental writing whooshed by to somewhat unsettling effect. But the magic was there all the same and the moments of stillness stood out all the better. The episode that brings the whole work together is (I feel) the final bass aria, 'Mache dich mein Herze rein' - here he understands, accepts and transcends all that has gone before. If that doesn't do its job, nothing does. It worked.
My personal frustration with the staging is mostly due to the sonic impact, as it entails much clonking about and some directional echoes which are the fault of the RAH's acoustic, not the performers. Still, there's much to chew over: the presence, or lack of it, of Jesus himself (we might ask: is he real?), those intimate dialogues between singers and instrumentalists, that soul-searing performance by Padmore.
Would less be more? We can feel the suffering in the music; we don't need to see it. The spiritual catharsis of this work, like Parsifal's, is perhaps better internalised if there is not too much to observe and assess: that process puts us outside ourselves, switches on our objective brain and mutes the intuitive, emotional plane that's necessary for the full cumulative effect to reach us. (Btw, I am not religious in any way, shape or form; yet perhaps that makes the spiritual dimensions of Bach and Wagner all the more meaningful.)
What seemed at the time a long, hot evening now haunts for its ineffable beauty, its deeply human quest for meaning and its all-consuming, tour-de-force performances.
In the foyer I spotted the head of the LSO, who may or may not have been clutching a metaphorical butterfly net.