My heart swims in blood / Because my many sins / Make me monstrous / In God's holy eyes...
That's the uplifting beginning of one of the two J.S. Bach Cantatas that will be sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson at the Barbican for one night only on June 23rd. (The text doesn't get much less bleak in the rest of the piece, although she does find redemption in death.) She will sing this deeply moving piece of 18th-century Lutheran church music dressed in a plain blue smock, writhing on the floor, while tangling up and choking herself with a long piece of red fabric. In the second act, she will reappear, dressed in a ratty hospital gown and dirty brown socks, and sing another cantata, this time while being menaced by a light bulb. It will be fabulous.
No, really, it will. This odd little piece of music theatre, devised by maverick Peter Sellars, was performed at the Barbican once before, four years ago, to mostly rapturous reviews. Tim Ashley writing at that time in the Guardian, said that "It ranks among the most heart-rending things I've ever seen." In the intervening time, the piece has travelled to New York and Paris, and the two cantatas have been released on a CD, to similarly rapturous reviews.
There are a lot of reasons to love Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. (Please note: all the cool kids call her "LHL.") She's a singer who takes a lot of artistic risks while never succumbing to gimmickry and pandering. And her voice is big and warm and in perfect control.
There are just as many reasons to hate Peter Sellars (Please note: he was not in Dr. Strangelove, and he is not dead. That's Peter Sell-ERS. With an E.) Sellars has inflicted a lot of really, really ugly things on the stages of the world. His public humiliation, after he ran the Adelaide Festival into the ground and promptly resigned, was probably richly deserved. And he has a very special gift for making even the unquestionably good things he does (like, for example, the Tristan and Isolde performed in front a giant movie screen that just happened in Paris last month), sound unbearably stupid when he tries to talk about them in interviews.
But the LHL Bach cantatas at the Barbican should play exactly to his strengths—minute attention to musical detail, emotional immediacy through physical rigour—and avoid all of his familiar weaknesses—blunt, facile "updatings," a cheap school-pageant aesthetic. After all, these are cantatas about blood, death, pain, and despair. This is Bach in his most ugly, violent mode. It might actually be less jarring, for one actually listening to the words and music, to see them performed by an hospital patient getting choked with a scarf than to see them performed by a woman in an posh evening gown, with perfect posture. And LHL, who has been a consistent Sellars collaborator for years, is exactly the person to make you believe in all the weirdness. So if you go (and there seem to be a few £9 tickets left) don't read the programs notes, but do bring your binoculars, and a pack of tissues.