The Judas Passion at St John’s Smith Square review ***

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Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment, Nicholas McGegan, Brenden Gunnell, Roderick Williams, Mary Bevan, Choir of the OAE

St John’s Smith Square, 25th September 2017

The Judas Passion is a new work commissioned by the OAE and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra San Francisco, and was composed by Sally Beamish with a libretto by David Harsent. Now I had not heard any of Ms Beamish’s works before, though she is an eminent modern British composer, but this felt like an “event”, so I decided that my presence lurking in the back was required. The convenience of an hour long piece starting at 7pm was also an attraction.

Now new Passions to match the heights reached by JS Bach are few on the ground. Commissions of liturgal works are perforce limited and few composers are likely to have the desire or the belief to engage in such an exercise. Which is a shame because when they do, as with Penderecki’s St Luke Passion or, better still, Part’s Passio, it can bring forth transcendent music. And this from a committed atheist.

The Judas Passion was doubly interesting because of the way librettist David Harsent (a poet who has written libretto’s for Sir Harrison Birtwhistle’s major operas) chose to set out the Passion story. It is told from Judas’s perspective and shows him not as the customary dastardly villain but as a man who is chosen, and forgiven, by Christ to act as he did. The simple, but very affecting libretto, explores this idea with single parts for Judas (American tenor Brendan Gunnell), Jesus (baritone Roderick WIlliams) and Mary Magdalene (soprano Mary Bevan) who acts as a sort of narrator. The disciples create the chorus as well as a part for an interchangeable God/Devil to emphasise the duality of Judas’s motives.

All round the singing was very fine, but I was particularly struck by Mary Bevan who lent a melancholy to her lines which was fitting. She is playing the lead in Coraline, Mark-Antony Turnage’s new opera, which is on my to see list. The score is terse which fits the drama and largely taken at a moderate pace with a couple of more energetic episodes. The tone is deliberately Baroque (with harpsichord and lute alongside strings, flutes, natural horns and occasional trumpets) with many canonic and fugal nods to JS Bach and a barrage of more or less interesting percussive effects. The singers were lightly choreographed by stage director Peter Thomson (with not a lot of stage to play with) which definitely heightened the performance for me.

I am not sure how the score would stand up as a recording or in a large concert hall. However, as a chamber “opera”, redolent of Britten’s Church Parables, with costume and movement, I think it would be extremely effective. Words, music and action together tell an involving story, with a bold perspective which draws on more than just the Biblical gospels. A true Passion I suppose.

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