Oberammergau Passion Play is a changing tradition

Reporting from Oberammergau, Germany —

After 376 years, the Oberammergau Passion Play is still a work in progress. Performed every decade as a promise to God, it now confronts its own controversial history as much as it explores its reason for being.

At an outdoor theater large enough to hold nearly the entire population of this small Bavarian village, a capacity audience of 4,700 watches Andreas Richter as Jesus angrily confront money-changers and merchants in the Temple of Solomon. The 130-foot-wide performance space is packed with hundreds of local performers playing the merchants, Jesus’ disciples and followers, curious townspeople, angry members of the Jerusalem priesthood and Roman soldiers, plus assorted livestock.

“Is this God’s house or is it a marketplace?” Richter asks in German, smashing a large terra cotta pot and then overturning a cage to send a flock of doves flying into the afternoon sky. Many of his words and actions are traditional in Oberammergau, familiar and expected for centuries — but not what happens next.

Covering his head with a shawl, Richter holds high the sacred scrolls of the Torah and leads everyone except the Romans in a fervent Jewish prayer — in Hebrew. More Hebrew, and a Menorah, turn up later in the Last Supper scene, which sets New Testament events in the context of a solemn Passover ritual.

Clearly, this is not the same Oberammergau Passion Play that Adolf Hitler saw in 1930 and 1934 and approved.

By making Jesus and his disciples unmistakably and devoutly Jewish, 2010’s director, Christian Stückl, and his collaborators completely undercut the accusations of anti-Semitism that, for good reason, tainted the Passion play throughout much of its history. In this very German retelling, Jesus — like Martin Luther — tries to reform a corrupt, inflexible religious establishment from within. When that proves impossible, he provides an alternative.

In an introduction to the published text, Ludwig Mödl, the theological advisor for the current production, explains that “it is important for the people of Oberammergau that the play accurately portray Jewish religious and cultural elements in order to avoid even the possibility of linking the play with anti-Semitic tendencies, as has so tragically occurred in the past.”

To clarify why Christ proved such a threat to the Jewish High Council, Stückl inserts passages from the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings. Conservative Christians may object to finding the woman taken in adultery appearing after Palm Sunday. But such violations of Gospel chronology make the forgiveness of sins a key dramatic statement here. And that’s crucial.

What’s more, Stückl’s staging depicts Jesus’ Jerusalem as an oppressed, occupied city, and Pontius Pilate is now the first person, not the last, to demand that he be silenced. Stephan Burkart plays Pilate with a sardonic, Nazified swagger that would be perfect for “Inglourious Basterds,” and it’s easy to remember that this Bavarian village is only a couple of hours away from the Dachau concentration camp: a Golgotha on German soil. Oberammergau may be remote, but it’s profoundly in touch, keeping the faith in surprising new ways.

Changing tradition

When a deadly plague arrived on their doorstep in 1633, the people of Oberammergau vowed that if they were spared, they would perform the story of Christ’s passion every 10 years. No further deaths took place and the village has kept its vow (and then some) 41 times — but the performance text that’s become traditional dates from the 19th century and is credited to Othmar Weis (1769-1843) and Joseph Alois Daisenberger (1799-1833).

If you read what most 20th century audiences heard on this stage, you’d find the angry merchants and money-changers pressuring Jewish leaders to destroy Christ — and the Jews demanding crucifixion with one bloodthirsty voice. Oberammergau softened that text somewhat after Vatican II, the 1962-65 conference at which the Catholic Church absolved the Jewish people of collective responsibility for Christ’s death.

But the 2010 revisions go much further, making highly principled Jewish characters such as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus argue persuasively for Christ’s release and sharpening the issues fueling the infighting within the Jewish community. The stakes are high: On one side, absolute obedience to The Law and the power structure; on the other a redemptive personal relationship with God.

The immediacy of the staging keeps interest maximal. Jesus is present for both Peter’s denial of him and Judas’ attempt to undo his betrayal, making these scenes acutely intense, and the cruelties leading to the crucifixion are graphically realistic.

Certain interpretations have become Oberammergau traditions — the relatively sympathetic Judas, for starters. But others are more complex than ever. The High Priest Caiaphas starts out reluctant to attack Christ but yields when pressured by Pilate and eventually overplays his hand when lobbying for the release of Barabbas. What in Weis and Daisenberger was a one-dimensional villain (often costumed in Satanic horns) now gains dignity and even tragic stature as played by Anton Burkart.

Prologue, epilogue

One of the most distinctive features of the production dates to Ferdinand Rosner’s version of 1750 (adapted by Weis): the series of tableaux that offer Old Testament perspectives on Jesus’ story. Did he suffer but keep his faith? So did Job. Was he dangerously at risk? So was Daniel in the lion’s den.

Boldly designed and brightly lighted on an inner stage, these brief, motionless sequences are accompanied by music in the noble, heartfelt Mozart-Haydn tradition by Rochus Dedler (1779-1822) and sung by a fine 48-member chorus. They offer not only biblical history lessons but balm for the spirit as Jesus’ story becomes ever more a relentless study in suffering.

If the crucifixion scene is unsparingly brutal, the aftermath is radically simplified. A scene with soldiers at the tomb is cut and what remains has the atmosphere of a ‘60s love-in. The angel who announces the resurrection carries a metal pan with a flame. Magdalene lights a candle or taper from it, Jesus’ disciples and friends light theirs from hers until the whole stage glistens and the risen Christ makes a brief, silent appearance.

That’s all. There’s a hallelujah chorus. but the final exit is subdued, meditative, as if everyone knows that what they’ve witnessed won’t be the last martyrdom of the Christian era.

Half the village is onstage or backstage for the performances, but you have to be an Oberammergau resident for 20 years to participate. Makeup is traditionally forbidden (except for the blood visible during Christ’s scourging and crucifixion), so all the long hair and beards on view are authentic. Certain families once virtually owned major roles, but now the leading characters are double-cast to cover the five-month season.

Performances continue through early October, and ticket prices range from 45 to 150 euros (more for advance bookings). The play lasts five and a half 5 1/2 hours, not counting a long dinner break midway through. It used to take place in daylight, but now, for the first time, begins in early afternoon and finishes about 10:30 at night. The text (in German and English translation) is widely available. So whether you read it in advance or follow along, there’s no excuse for being in the dark about the transformative new passion onstage in old Bavaria. Segal, formerly The Times’ staff dance critic, Segal is a freelance arts writer based in Hollywood and Barcelona, Spain.