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Reviews

<em>The Judas Passion</em>: St John’s Smith Square
26 Sep 2017

The Judas Passion: Sally Beamish and David Harsent offer new perspectives

Was Judas a man ‘both vile and justifiably despised: an agent of the Devil, or a man who God-given task was to set in train an event that would be the salvation of Humankind’? This is the question at the heart of Sally Beamish’s The Judas Passion, commissioned jointly by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the Philharmonia Baroque of San Francisco.

The Judas Passion: St John’s Smith Square

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sally Beamish

Photo credit: Ashley Coombes

 

Librettist David Harsent notes that there is no doubt that Judas’s betrayal led to Christ’s death, but begs us to ask, what did Judas believe was his ‘purpose’? After all, if he had not ‘fulfilled’ this role, chosen or predetermined, mankind would not have been saved. David Harsent professes that his own aim was to ‘write Judas out of hell’, ‘to set him before an audience and bring him to a new judgment’.

Beamish and Harsent purport to present the Passion story from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, but this is not really what they do. Or rather, at times do they seem to offer Judas’s understanding of his role, but this is set against a single question which is reiterated and rephrased throughout - ‘Does Judas choose, or is he chosen to betray Christ?’ Moreover, ‘Do we following the callings of our own heart - or the callings of whatever voice we choose to name, God’s voice, or the Devil’s’?

In accordance with this ambiguity, the Devil and God sing in rhythmic unison: countertenor Christopher Field and bass William Gaunt were designated both roles. As Mary Magdalene relates, ‘And the Devil went into Judas, the Devil or God’.

Indeed, ambiguity prevails. There is little to distinguish between any of the protagonists, other than Christ, Judas and Mary Magdalene, and in fact towards the close the former two men are intimated to be kindred. The entire cast are dressed in black and individuals such as Peter (bass Dingle Yandell) and the two Thieves (tenor Hugo Hymas and bass Jonathan Brown) emerge from and are reintegrated into the Chorus (which is at times split in two). I guess the idea is that the players in the drama could be anyone, historic or present, involved by chance in momentous events, powerless to change the course of mankind’s predetermined narrative.

There are no philosophical musings which might essay an answer at the posed questions; as I’ve suggested above, at times the libretto seems to suggest that there is no question to answer. In the opening scene, Judas is a reluctant participant when asked to name his price for betraying Jesus: ‘I do it because I must […] I do it because it fell to me. His hand on mine’; words that are repeated time and again, through to the final scene. And, unlike the other disciples who probe, ‘Is it me?’, he stays silent at the Last Supper. God and the Devil declare in rhythmic unison, ‘He is chosen … the man is already chosen’. In his programme article, Harsent refers to an extant Gospel of Judas, dated at 3 or 4 CE, ‘a Gnostic text found in Middle Egypt around 1978’ which was published in 2006 and from which he takes a single line: when Jesus calls the disciples to him none save Jesus can hold his gaze, ‘whereupon Jesus tells Judas: “You are the best of them, for you will free me of the man who clothes me.”’ From this, Harsent suggest we may infer that ‘Judas was born to the task’.

Perhaps the potential philosophical complexities cannot be satisfactorily pursued within a simple dramatic form? Beamish’s Passion is not really an opera, despite the involvement of a ‘stage director’, Peter Thomson, or an oratorio; nor is it a ‘Passion’ in the mould of Bach, despite the baroque instrumentation (strings, lute, flutes plus a very twentieth-century percussion collection), the use of polyphonic forms (canons, fugues) and recitative- and aria-like episodes, and the incorporation of fragments of the St Matthew Passion.

I was at first put in mind of Britten’s Church Parables: indebted to Japanese noh plays, they present drama and stage movement with a similar slow-motion solemnity to that adopted by Thomson. Progressively, though, Britten’s Rape of Lucretia seemed a closer model: it also has a framing Male and Female Chorus - the latter role here is represented by Mary Magdalene - who sometimes intervene in the action and present abstract ethical and philosophical sentiments. So, Harsent’s opening male Chorus denounce Judas, ‘Better that man had not been born who sold his soul, who gave himself up to Satan, who bartered the Son of Man, who made a deal with darkness’, while Britten’s Male and Female Chorus tell us that ‘We’ll view these human passions and these years/ Through eyes which once have wept with Christ’s own tears.’

The problem with Harsant’s libretto is that it becomes predictable, and often seems to follow its biblical model. More imaginative engagement with the Passion stories can be found in John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ The Gospel According to Mary which presents the story of the Passion through the eyes of those whose tales are usually unheard: Mary Magadalen, her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. And, there are several recent literary explorations, notably Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary.

Moreover, though it is evocative at times, I found Beamish’s score pretty predictable too. The writing for the chorus is largely declamatory, and incorporates some Chassidic chanting, but there is little variety of timbre or manner. There is effective writing for the strings - alternating glacial ethereality with pungent chordal and pizzicato stabs - and the flutes and lute offer delicacy and grace. But, the strident natural horns and trumpets, as the cock crows, were all too foreseeable. Similarly, the percussive effects, such as real hammers, whips and nails alongside slapsticks to provide an aural complement for the text’s uncomfortable imagery - ‘on his head a cap of thorns driven hard into the skin’; ‘with ropes and winches and hammer and nails and flesh, They nailed him, then hauled him up’ - and the centre-piece ‘Judas Chime’ constructed from 30 ‘pieces of silver’ are pictorial but unsubtle.

The inclusion of the figure of Mary Magdalene - sung with radiance and fierce focus by Mary Bevan - is one of the strengths of the libretto and score. Magdalene is the only figure on stage at the close, and her final question, ‘If he can’t be saved, who can be saved? If he can’t be forgiven, who can be forgiven?’, is provocative and penetrating. Not only does this inclusion of a female role provide timbral and registral contrast, but the role of Mary Magdalene also offers a more objective, calmer perspective on the events that we witness unfold. She comments in the past tense, as the participants enact their roles in the present (though this effective distinction is blurred at times, as when Mary interacts with Peter in the denial scene).

Mary’s vocal line also incorporates expressive melisma in contradistinction to the prevailing syllabic motion of the other parts, most effectively in ‘Who Do You Say I Am?’, when she reminds us that though the Chorus tell of Jesus’s reputation as a ‘prophet’ and ‘man of miracles’, there were those who called him blasphemer, fool, lawbreaker. When the Chorus accuse Christ of ‘Blasphemy!’ and throw their shrill demands, ‘Crucify him!’, Mary reminds us of the miracles performed.

Brendan Gunnell’s Judas pins us with a penetrating upper register that is as captivating as his stern stare. There is a moving moment when the angularity of the melodic intervals - ‘My face on these coins, my name on them. For all time: my face, my name’ - gives way to the stillness of repeated pitch, ‘his blood’. I was confused, though, as to why Judas, in Harsent’s words, ‘in effect - stands in for Pilate’ in the scene when Christ is brought before the Roman prefect of Judaea: Judas is, as the syllabic chanting of his name in the opening scene reinforces, a Jew; Pilate is not. And, why does Judas/Pilate sometimes speak his own words, while at other times they are reported by Mary, as if retrospectively?

Roderick Williams struck the right balance between serenity and suffering, as Jesus. It must have been quite an emotional shift taking on this role in between his embodiment of Mozart’s bird-catcher at the Royal Opera House , though both dramas involve much magic and miracle. Williams’ delivery suggested both gravitas and humanity. In the second scene, ‘The Last Supper’, he stood at the rear, forcing the Chorus to turn towards him and subtly implicating us as members of his audience; in ‘The Agony in the Garden’ he stood at the front, fixing us with an intent gaze.

There are some moments of affecting dramatic intensity. Towards the close, Jesus and Judas stand at the rear of the stage, backs turned (to indicate their dying and death), and sing together, ‘My God, why are you lost to me?’. But, the incisiveness of the moment is lost as Judas slips back into what might be seen as self-justifying repetition (though, as I’ve suggested, the ethical questions are not truly explored): ‘What I did I was chosen to do. What I have I was asked to give. What I lost I was told to lose. My only purpose, his death and mine.’

I felt that there was a dissipation of intellectual intensity towards the close, as the text slipped towards sentimental abstractions. When Mary and the Chorus sing, ‘His death … our salvation … this and only this.’, I felt we were back in Lucretia territory - specifically Ronald Duncan’s dreadfully woolly epilogue: ‘Is it all? Is all this suffering and pain,/ Is it in vain? … Is this all loss? Are we lost? … Is it all? Is this it all?’

The noble Classical columns of St John’s Smith Square should have provided the perfect setting for The Judas Passion (the work had been premiered the previous evening in Saffron Walden), and it was pleasing to see the church nave full for this performance of a challenging new work. However, SJSS’s sightlines are poor and seated to the rear I struggled to sustain my view of and engagement with Thomson’s stage action. Fortunately, the cast’s diction was uniformly good for it was not possible to read the libretto, usefully provided, in the dimmed lighting, and the two surtitle screens were obscured by the imposing pillars.

At the close, the Devil and God pronounce, ‘Chosen for this: born to this: his only purpose …’ A troubling statement, and one which Beamish and Harsent reiterate but do not really interrogate.

Claire Seymour

Sally Beamish: The Judas Passion

Mary Magdalene - Mary Bevan, Brendan Gunnell - Judas, Roderick Williams - Christ; Orchestra and Choir of the Age of Enlightenment: Nicholas McGegan (conductor), Peter Thomson (stage director).

St John’s Smith Square, London; Monday 25th September 2017.

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