Oberammergau Passion Play 2010

Othmar Weis, revised by Christian Stückl and Otto Huber
Passionsspiel Theatre, Oberammergau

Production photo - The Crucifixion

"Welcome to all whom here the tender love of the Saviour unites, mourning, to follow him on his journey of suffering to his final resting place "

With these words the Prologue, or speaker, in this case Dominikus Zwink, opens the passion play of Oberammergau, neither festival nor theatre the local people will tell you, but rather a witness of faith and a healing experience for the performers and for the many spectators.

For the first time in 370 years this performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play begins not at 9.30 am but in the afternoon. The keen-eyed follower will at once perceive that this means that for the first time in the long history of the play, the great Crucifixion scene is played after dusk. What this means for spectacle must be imagined by the reader, facilitated by sophisticated, computerised theatrical lighting.

Those familiar with their Bible will also have spotted that, for the first time too, events at the Cross coincide precisely with the record of the New Testament synoptic gospels down to the darkness and the rending of the Temple curtain.

The 41st production opened in the little Bavarian town last weekend before a first night audience including civic leaders from all around and far beyond the Ammergauer Valley.

Having now seen all three of Christian Stückl's productions I can record that this year's passion play, with perhaps the most important revision of the famous text by the Ettal monk Othmar Weis, is indeed memorable for both spectacle and spiritual power.

Stückl, who in his other life is Artistic Director of the Munich Volks Theatre, has spent most of his life in search of the character of Jesus of Nazareth looking "not just for an historical pageant figure but rather for how matters of faith can be brought to the stage"

And in this production we see, perhaps controversially, a rare glimpse beyond the stained glass images of the Apostles' recollections to the vigour of a pastoral ministry and the frailty of a recognisable human being.

As since the 17th century villagers' pledge to perform the play every ten years in thanksgiving for relief from plague, more than two thousand players, musicians and technicians are drawn almost exclusively from residents of this hamlet nestling amid the Ammergauer Alps. This "Passionspiele Haus" built in 1880 by local architects, will for the next six months welcome audiences of 4,720 five times a week - all of them under cover.

In fact today's players - and their animals - are also at last under cover, courtesy of a new £2 million retractable canopy.

Perhaps the most arresting aspect of the Oberammergau experience is the 19th century musical score of Rochus Dedler, written for full orchestra and choir of 48 voices led on and off stage by the confident figure of the cane-bearing speaker. This and the blending of Old Testament tableaux give the play its classical form.

Musical director is Marcus Zwink, who performed this role in 2000 and has also directed Everyman at the Salzburg Festival. The conductor is an organ builder, Michael Bocklet, who is also a local choirmaster.

Christ's Palm Sunday entry to Jerusalem is the spectacular opening scene, the excited, ringing voices of children spilling over the busy crowd which fills the large stage as Jesus enters on a donkey which truly "has his hour, with palms beneath his feet."

Tuesday's Christus (Christ) was Andreas Richter, fair-haired and appearing slight beneath his robe. This impression is of course misleading as only a man of considerable strength and physique can sustain this fiercely demanding role. As with all named characters, Richter alternates, in his case with the Passion press officer, Frederik Mayet.

The New Testament story unfolds mostly at a remarkable pace though there are passages where the director's hand is evident in some powerfully dramatic pauses. And without any amplification the clarity of the players in the vast auditorium is remarkable.

All the disciples are clearly recognisable characters - an especially fine and youthful Peter from Maximilian Stöger There is a strong Judas from Martin Norz and two fine characterisations by Raimund Bierling and Anton Preisinger as Annas and Caiaphas.

Andrea Hecht is a lovely clear-voiced Mary in this company. However, if I am to select an especially memorable performance, the Christus apart, it is that of the black leather-clad Christian Bierling as a tough, disinterested Pilate. In an unexpected moment during the washing of hands he flicks the water into Caiaphas's face instantly describing their relationship.

Among the most beautiful scenes is the Last Supper. A canvas cloth drops to create the upper room and Christ moves slowly across stage to wash the feet of his Disciples. After the feast of the Passover Jesus and his Disciples go to the ethereal Mount of Olives where the betrayal takes place followed by a most lovely soprano solo as he is led away for trial.

Animals feature strongly in this performance. In addition to the expected donkey, there are sheep and goats scattered by the children, two camels, one of them a splendid long-haired dromedary, a fine stallion which bears Markus Köpf's arrogant Herod, and, at the climax of the Temple scene as Christ is seen in fury, he intentionally or not releases a flock of doves which promptly soar out over the audience before disappearing through the vaulted roof.

Costumes and settings by Stefan Hageneier are thoroughly visual - the robes of the Scribes and Pharisees in contrasting ochre stripes and yellows, all set against the background of the striking blue flowing costumes of the crowd, known in these parts as "Volk".

The Oberammergau Passion Play continues until October 3rd 2010

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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