Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Judas Passion @ St John’s Smith Square, London

25 September 2017

Nicholas McGegan
(Photo: Steve J. Sherman)

Judas Iscariot: Satan’s puppet, consigned to the lowest circle of Dante’s inferno; God’s instrument, an essential requirement for redemption to take place; or simply a human being torn between politics and friendship? This question has often been debated, and it forms the basis of The Judas Passion, a Passion cantata/opera by Sally Beamish (with libretto by David Harsent) that has, as its culmination, the parallel dual sacrifice by Christ and Judas – one on Golgotha, the other in The Field of Blood.

Beamish worked with the late Peter Maxwell Davies, and this shows in her writing for this piece: complex note clusters, the use of magic-squares to construct thematic material, a deal of percussion (including a specially invented ‘Judas chime’ constructed from 30 pieces of silver) and angular melodies – indeed, there were moments when it brought to mind a performance of Taverner or The Lighthouse, but with a more ascetic vibe. This asceticism was highlighted by her use of a quasi-baroque structure of arias and chorales in a nod to the golden age of Passion composition; underscoring this, the orchestra (apart from the percussion section) was made up of period instruments played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

There were moments of musical originality and interest: the aforementioned Judas chime twinkling away at significant moments (including a mad jangling at the point where Judas returns ‘the price of blood’); the raucous horns and trumpets announcing Christ’s interview with Pilate; a little rhythmic Latin number at the opening of The Last Supper; the brash braying of trumpets for the cock-crow at Peter’s betrayal; and the occasional Bach moment with two flutes accompanying an arioso passage. The structural musical decisions were also enjoyable to witness, and were often augmented by Peter Thomson’s staging: Judas’ inner voices (God and the Devil at the same time) portrayed by the duet of lush counter-tenor and solemn bass (Christopher Field and William Gaunt); an all-male chorus of eleven disciples, signifying the very masculine world of the scriptures; the choice of a sole woman in the cast (Mary Bevan), playing the wise commentator Mary Magdalen; the use of homophonic chorales for narrative, reminiscent slightly of Pärt’s Passio; Pilate’s questions being asked by Judas; the whips and hammer blows from the percussion during the scourging and crucifixion.

The performers put everything into it, and gave some excellent accounts – Brenden Gunnell’s lyric-tenor Judas worked well against Roderick Williams’ rich baritone Jesus – the latter often surprisingly high in his range, in contrast to the usual basso of a Christus. Mary Bevan gave us the comforting soprano of the mourning Magdalen, but with an admonitory edge. The OAE under Nicholas McGegan performed superbly, fully committed to every one of the many changes in timbre and dynamic.

But … but. Ultimately, the somewhat aimless – almost serial – melodies became wearing, and this re-working of mid-twentieth-century modernism added little to the style’s original lustre; the whole evening felt a bit of a pale re-run of Max’s 1970s music-dramas without any of the anarchy or foxtrot fun, and often only the emotional force put into the music by the performers kept the excitement up – that and Harsent’s inspirational text. Lines such as “you will rid me of the man that clothes me” – sung simultaneously by Judas and Christ – and the final ambiguous comment (aimed at Christ or Judas?) from the Devil/God duet “Chosen for this: born to this: his only purpose” were cleverly crafted, and designed to be set to music, even if the music itself wasn’t that extraordinary.

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The Judas Passion @ St John’s Smith Square, London