When a recipe is already perfect, why add extra ingredients?
That is one of the questions the Oratory Bach Ensemble and Minnesota Dance Theatre set out to answer Friday evening at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis.
Their point of collaboration was Bach's "St. John Passion," a choral work describing Christ's trial before Pontius Pilate and his crucifixion.
Could adding the element of dance to a work originally intended for a church service bring new perspectives to bear on an acknowledged masterpiece of classical music?
For those used to experiencing their St. John Passion "straight, no chaser," the presence of 10 dancers throwing sinuous shapes during the brooding opening chorus may initially have been disconcerting.
But gradually Lise Houlton's patiently empathetic choreography wove its way into the texture and emotions of Bach's wonderfully affecting music.
Six female dancers provided a sensitively balletic counterpoint to mezzo-soprano Krista Costin's probing account of "Von den Stricken meiner Sünden," an aria in which the significance of Christ's suffering is contemplated.
In the bass aria "Betrachte, meine Seel" that follows Christ's scourging, the sweeping white veils used by the dancers appeared to reference both funeral shrouds and the bands which may have stanched his bleeding body.
And in the trial scene, the mercilessly legalistic chorus "Wir haben ein Gesetz" found an apt visual counterpart in the mechanistic hand and arm movements of the choreography.
Imaginative use was made of the Lab Theater's broad performing area. Solo singers delivered arias from small risers placed either side of the choir and orchestra, and the sweet-toned tenor Roy Heilman occupied a central position as the Evangelist narrator.
Among the other soloists, baritone Timothy Bruett made a particularly vivid impression as a gravelly Pilate, eyeballing Aaron Larson's dignified Jesus across the auditorium.
All of the solo singers except Heilman's Evangelist were drawn from the outstanding 16-voice choir, excellently prepared and led by conductor Matthew Olson.
The rising chromatic lines of the chorus "Wäre dieser nicht ein Übeltäter" had a searing edge to them, while "Bist du nicht seiner Jünger einer?" was spat with clenched-teeth vehemence.
The 17-piece orchestra played instruments of the baroque period, providing a tangy complement to the sharply responsive choral contributions.
The work of Paul Boehnke on organ and Julie Elhard on bass viol and viola da gamba was also crucial in sensitively shaping the numerous passages of recitative that advanced the narrative.
The many strands of excellence in this unique St. John Passion came together in a gripping realization of the work's deeply affecting conclusion.
As the choir's beautiful account of the final chorus unfolded, the 17 dancers gradually descended the metal stairwell on one side of the arena, crossed the stage in funereal procession and mounted the corresponding stairwell opposite.
The shock and awe produced by the profoundly consequential events that they had witnessed was movingly symbolized in the dancers' physical demeanor in a way that reinforced the message of Bach's magnificent music.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.