Sir Simon Rattle and Peter Sellars first collaborated to stage Bach’s St John Passion in 2014. Back then it was with the Berlin Philharmonic, and it was only performed in the German capital. Five years later, it finally made it to a UK stage, as the first stop on a European tour, this time with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The Royal Festival Hall was, unsurprisingly, totally sold out.

Staged oratorio usually go one of two ways: either they enhance and heighten the story through clever choreography, or they’re totally naff. As soon as the chorus began its slightly scrappy gesturing on Tuesday evening, I strongly suspected it was going to fall into the second camp.

But my body said otherwise. At every pleading “Herr” I was getting real shivers down my spine. Sellar’s simple, unsophisticated gestures of supplication to a higher power added a physical action that I often sense a chorus would do if given permission. Later on, as the chorus played the part of the mob that commits Jesus to his execution, the shouts of “Kreuzige, kreuzige!” (‘Crucify Him, crucify Him!’), physicalised through angry, jabbing fingers aimed at Jesus, took on a venom sometimes missing in concert performances. Perhaps such sophisticated musical text setting doesn’t need to be accompanied by primitive outbursts. But, my god, it worked.

The staging also had the effect of freeing up the players and singers, allowing for moments of sublime interaction. Tableau-like scenes were set up for arias like Betrachte, meine Seel, the two viola d’amore players joining the tenor, who circled the suffering Jesus. These moments of chamber music – one voice, a couple of obbligato instruments, and continuo – no longer required communication over metres of stage. For the casting of lots, the laughing, jeering chorus gathered around Jesus to taunt him. But most effectively, Rattle was able to move around the stage, teasing the most delicious, careful treatment of words from the chorus. The chorales in particular were in a different class.

Sellars also opened up space for much greater characterisation than we are used to. Jesus has comparably little action in this particular work, and is often sung with blanket authority by unthinking basses. On this occasion though, with Roderick Williams taking the role, the usual elevated tone was nowhere to be seen. Dragged across the stage, bound, blindfolded, spat at, and flogged, this Jesus was reduced to mortal, criminal status. Christine Rice’s Es ist vollbracht took on a more biting, ironic, guttural tone, as she sang of “The Hero from Judah”, in contrast to the usual pious, devotional treatment it’s given.

And Padmore, our Evangelist for the night: he might have had a few moments of friction at the top of his register, but his composure and stamina was formidable. One usually forgets about the emotional toil our story teller must bear, and it was right that the final moments of the performance refocused the spotlight on him, kneeling, as he reaffirmed his faith despite the horrors of what he had spent the last two and a quarter hours retelling.

Padmore prowled around the stage, every step and stare deliberate but never, ever hasty. So many performances thrash through the recitative, barely pausing for breath; this whole evening was a lesson in patience. He held the audience, and the audience held its breath, for at least half a minute at the end, his quiet gaze never faltering. Truly, this was the Passion according to Padmore.

Performances of Bach’s Passions are ten-a-penny at this time of year, it’s no wonder they often feel rather routine. But that’s what also made this performance so memorable. The care taken – which flowed from Rattle right down through the soloists, orchestra, chorus, not to mention the lighting, designed by Ben Zamora – was astounding, refreshing, nourishing. Bravo.