‘Can the ultimate betrayal ever be forgiven?’ screams the publicity for The Judas Passion, transforming a Biblical drama into a spears-and-sandals soap opera in a sentence. Thankfully, this really isn’t the premise of composer Sally Beamish and poet David Harsent’s new oratorio. Instead, the two authors pose a more interesting problem: is betrayal still betrayal when it’s divinely ordained, the price of salvation? A performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony this week celebrated the innocent joys of heaven; The Judas Passion invited us to count their sinful cost.
You see them before you hear them. The 30 pieces of silver catch the light as they hang suspended as part of the ‘Judas chime’, an instrument created especially for The Judas Passion. The sound is at once a warning jangle and a seductive shimmer of promise. It’s just one of several striking musical textures that punctuate Beamish’s new work. Jointly commissioned by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque, it takes the period orchestra of Bach’s passions as its toolbox, his musical structures as scaffolding, and constructs a contemporary work — a passion for our own age.
Three centuries on and the focus has shifted. The official gospel accounts are muddied by the problematic gnostic gospels; Judas, not Christ is the hero for our complicated times. Painted in more shades of grey than a Farrow & Ball catalogue, his betrayal becomes quite a different act, motivated not by the empty clatter of silver but by destiny and, even, love: ‘His hand in mine’ he repeats again and again. Mirroring and sharing lines between Judas and Jesus, Harsent guides us towards a reading that sees the men as two halves of a whole, each the equal and opposite of the other, two lives sacrificed to the same end.
Sitting somewhere between Bach’s contemplative St Matthew and the dramatic St John passions, Beamish’s work is a fluid affair cast in eight discrete scenes. The narrative passes freely between characters and the all-male chorus — sometimes onlookers, sometimes active participants. The period instruments of the OAE are pastels to the modern orchestra’s oils — pitted and ridged with texture, but chalky-soft in colour.
The result is episode after episode of delicate, precise drama. A nervy tambourine ticks like a pulse at the temple during the betrayal, the infernal rasp of early brass trumpets the fateful cock crow. Beamish gives us a gorgeous musical vision of the nocturnal Garden of Gethsemane — plaintive night-bird calls in the flutes, plucked violins the water droplets from a fountain, the scrunch of crickets in the harpsichord. The heavy tread of the Via Dolorosa marches doggedly forwards in plucked cellos.
Against this intricate backdrop the singers are silhouetted in deeper, darker colours. As Mary Magdalene, Mary Bevan’s soprano is charred and scarred into great bleeding slashes of emotion, while Brenden Gunnell’s Judas grows from a crooning start to a roaring, defiant close — a contrast to the potent stillness and control of Roderick Williams’s Christ.
The Judas Passion might claim kinship with Bach, but it shares more musical DNA with works such as John Adams’s The Gospel According to the Other Mary and El Niño, James MacMillan’s Clemency, even George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. The opera-oratorio has become a secular world’s way into a sacred space — parable turned pageant. But along with the rest of the genre, Beamish’s work suffers from a sense of lack. When you take the Bible out of the church and relocate it to the concert hall, you exchange the framework of faith for something else — the question is what. It’s one to which neither Beamish nor anyone else has yet offered a completely convincing musical answer.
Closing with a child’s vision of heaven, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony is a return to prelapsarian innocence that, like William Blake’s, is anything but sentimental. The closing movement — a setting of the Des Knaben Wunderhorn poem ‘The Heavenly Life’ — is scored for ‘a singing voice’ and orchestra, and usually features a soprano soloist. For her performances with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, however, music director Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla opted for a trio of trebles — a decision with precedent in Bernstein, among others, and one that set the tone for her woodcut-bold reading of the symphony.
While it’s fashionable to draw out the darker underlying menace of the Fourth (whose Scherzo Mahler marked as ‘Death strikes up’), Grazinyte-Tyla took the music at face value, giving us musical rusticity as direct as folk art and, in the skilled hands of the CBSO, just as lacking in kitsch. The rough blend and often approximate tuning of the three trebles from the Trinity Boys Choir tempered sweetness with a pleasantly abrasive directness — musically no rival for a soprano, but free from any of the queasy faux-innocence that can sometimes crowd the beauty of this music.