Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Vaughan Williams Dona nobis pacem - BBC Prom 41

Prom 41 at the Royal Albert Hall, London, with Edward Gardner conducting the BBCSO in Vaughan Williams's Dona nobis pacem, Elgar's Cello Concerto (Jean-Guihen Queyras) and Lili Boulanger . Extremely perceptive performances that revealed deep insight, far more profound than the ostensible "1918" theme

Lisbon under ashes - rediscovered Portuguese Baroque

In 1755, Lisbon was destroyed, first by a massive earthquake, then by a tsunami pouring in from the Atlantic, then by fire and civil unrest. The scale of the disaster is almost unimaginable today. The centre of the Portuguese Empire, with treasures from India, Africa, Brazil and beyond, was never to recover. The royal palaces, with their libraries and priceless collections, were annihilated.

John Wilson brings Broadway to South Kensington: West Side Story at the BBC Proms

There were two, equal ‘stars’ of this performance of the authorised concert version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall: ‘Lenny’ himself, whose vibrant score - by turns glossy and edgy - truly shone, and conductor John Wilson, who made it gleam, and who made us listen afresh and intently to every coloristic detail and toe-tapping, twisting rhythm.

Prom 36: Webern, Mahler, and Wagner

One of the joys of writing regularly – sometimes, just sometimes, I think too regularly – about performance has been the transformation, both conscious and unconscious, of my scholarship.

Prom 33: Thea Musgrave, Phoenix Rising, and Johannes Brahms, Ein deutsches Requiem, op.45

I am not sure I could find much of a connection between the two works on offer here. They offered ‘contrast’ of a sort, I suppose, yet not in a meaningful way such as I could discern.

Gianni Schicchi by Oberlin in Italy

It’s an all too rare pleasure to see Puccini’s only comedy as a stand alone opera. And more so when it is a careful production that uncovers the all too often overlooked musical and dramatic subtleties that abound in Puccini’s last opera.

Sarah Connolly and Joseph Middleton journey through the night at Cadogan Hall

The mood in the city is certainly soporific at the moment, as the blistering summer heat takes its toll and the thermometer shows no signs of falling. Fittingly, mezzo-soprano Dame Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton presented a recital of English song settings united by the poetic themes of night, sleep, dreams and nightmares, juxtaposing masterpieces of the early-twentieth-century alongside new works by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Australian composer Lisa Illean, and two ‘long-lost’ songs by Britten.

Vanessa: Keith Warner's Glyndebourne production exposes truths and tragedies

“His child! It must not be born!” Keith Warner’s new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa for Glyndebourne Festival Opera makes two births, one intimated, the other aborted, the driving force of the tragedy which consumes two women, Vanessa and her niece Erika, rivals for the same young man, Anatol, son of Vanessa’s former lover.

Rollicking Rossini in Santa Fe

Santa Fe Opera welcomed home a winningly animated production of L’Italiana in Algeri this season that utterly delighted a vociferously responsive audience.

Rock solid Strauss Salomé- Salzburg

Richard Strauss Salomé from the Salzburg Festival, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, a powerful interpretation of an opera which defies easy answers, performed and produced with such distinction thast it suceeds on every level. The words "Te saxa Loquuntur" (The stones are speaking to you) are projected onto the stage. Salzburg regulars will recognize this as a reference to the rock foundations on which part of the city is built, and the traditions of excellence the Festival represents. In this opera, the characters talk at cross-purposes, hearing without understanding. The phrase suggests that what might not be explicitly spoken might have much to reveal.

Prom 26: Dido and Cleopatra – Queens of Fascination

In this, her Proms debut, Anna Prohaska offered something akin to a cantata of two queens, complementary and contrasted: Dido and Cleopatra. Returning in a sense to her ‘early music’ roots – her career has always been far richer, more varied, but that world has always played an important part – she collaborated with the Italian ‘period’ ensemble, Il Giardino Armonico and Giovanni Antonini.

Parsifal: Munich Opera Festival

And so, this year’s Munich Opera Festival and this year’s Bavarian State Opera season came to a close with everyone’s favourite Bühnenweihfestspiel, Parsifal, in the final outing this time around for Pierre Audi’s new production.

Santa Fe: Atomic Doesn’t Quite Ignite

What more could we want than having Peter Sellars re-imagine his acclaimed staging of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic at the renowned Santa Fe Opera festival?

Santa Fe: Continuing a Proud Strauss Tradition

Santa Fe Opera has an enduring reputation for its Strauss, and this season’s enjoyable Ariadne auf Naxos surely made John Crosby smile proudly.

From the House of the Dead: Munich Opera Festival

Frank Castorf might have been born to direct From the House of the Dead. In this, his third opera project - or better, his third opera project in the opera house, for his Volksbühne Meistersinger must surely be reckoned with, even by those of us who did not see it - many of his hallmarks and those of his team are present, yet without the slightest hint of staleness, of anything other than being reborn for and in the work.

Haydn's Orlando Paladino in Munich

Should you not like eighteenth-century opera very much, if at all, and should you have no or little interest in Haydn either, this may have been the production for you. The fundamental premise of Axel Ranisch’s staging of Orlando Paladino seems to have been that this was a work of little fundamental merit, or at least a work in a genre of little such merit, and that it needed the help of a modern medium - perhaps, it might even be claimed, an equivalent medium - to speak to a contemporary audience.

Donizetti's 'Regiment' Ride the Highway: Opera della Luna at Wilton's Music Hall

'The score … is precisely one of those works that neither the composer nor the public takes seriously. The harmony, melody, rhythmic effects, instrumental and vocal combinations; it’s music, if you wish, but not new music. The orchestra consumes itself in useless noises…'

Bernstein Bemuses in New Mexico

Santa Fe Opera’s Candide is a nearly indefatigable romp that is currently parading on the Crosby Theatre stage, chockfull of inventive ideas.

Santa Fe Floats a Beauteous Butterfly

Two new stars moved triumphantly into the ongoing run of Santa Fe Opera’s mesmerizing rendition of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

Götterdämmerung in Munich

What I am about to write must be taken with the proviso that I have not seen, this year or any other, the rest of Andreas Kriegenburg’s Munich Ring. Friends tell me that would have made little difference, yet I cannot know for certain.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

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.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):