What is the collective noun for countertenors? Contemporary vocal music has rather been spoiled for them lately, with the best known, Iestyn Davies, offering outstanding recent performances in operas by George Benjamin and Thomas Adès, as a well as doing a turn in James MacMillan’s new choral work at the BBC Proms. We were treated to no less than four in Sally Beamish’s new work, The Judas Passion, and their musical presence contributed considerably to the haunting, keening quality of this setting of David Harsent for chamber orchestra, chorus and soloists.

Brenden Gunnell and Roderick Williams © Belinda Lawley
Brenden Gunnell and Roderick Williams
© Belinda Lawley

The Judas Passion recounts the story of the crucifixion, but Judas and Jesus share the limelight. Beamish and Harsent’s driving idea is to recast the role of Judas as one that explores questions of free will, destiny and choice. Somewhere between chamber opera and dramatic oratorio, the work unfolds over eight scenes, with the chorus – all male, all dressed in black – continually shifting roles (one minute the Sanhedrin, the next the disciples, then narrating the action), dividing, coming back together, despising Christ and turning to him for salvation. 

Beamish’s music called some extraordinary sonorities from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by Nicholas McGegan, their forces distilled to eleven strings; pairs of flutes, horns and trumpets; harpsichord, lute and percussion. Special mention should go to the percussionist Christopher Brannick, whose battery dominated the rear of the stage and vividly – awfully – dramatised the scourging of Christ, with explosive bass drum salvos during the trudge to Golgotha. Beamish herself conceived a new percussion instrument for the piece, the ‘Judas Chime’, a gleaming string of dangling metal coins that sliced through luminous string textures. Their effect was consistently lacerating.

Trumpets and horns spat violent fanfares, suggestive of Harrison Birtwistle’s Earth Dances – this is an elemental work – but with a special kind of rawness only the natural brass of the OAE could afford. By contrast, exquisite passages for low flutes, violas and lute were by turns moody and caressing, and showed Beamish’s genius in navigating the alto register, familiar from much of her instrumental writing. And such melting, transitional sonorities redoubled the point of the text, evoking the terrifying groundlessness of the moral world depicted in this work. Beamish’s gestures to Bach – fugue, canon, imitation – had a desperate musical urgency that dramatised the internal and external conflicts unfolding on a stage dressed with blood-red curtains.

The dramatic and emotional registers the piece seemed to be channelling were those of Benjamin Britten’s operas. Roderick Williams, singing Christ, suffused the role with innocence and charisma, and his vulnerability, particularly in the final section, “To Golgotha and the Field of Blood”, echoed that of Billy Budd. His baritone was supple, light, yet suggestive of the dark, inescapable destiny the second half of the work drove us towards: Billy Budd with a handful of dust. And, like that opera, The Judas Passion explores the dynamics of those facing extreme moral duress with great lucidity. Harsent’s text is filled with doubles and echoes that made the key themes of good and evil, destiny and freedom, play off against each with dizzying contrapuntal intensity. 

Roderick Williams in <i>The Judas Passion</i> © Belinda Lawley
Roderick Williams in The Judas Passion
© Belinda Lawley

Likewise, tenor Brenden Gunnell evoked the titular character of Peter Grimes, a role he has sung before, in his portrait of a man responsible for something terrible, yet humane, sympathetic, even gentle. His duets with Williams, where they often shared and overlapped elements of the text, were dazzling and intimate. He has a delicate, crystalline upper register, which produced some moments of outstanding beauty, and suffused with considerable pathos the faltering refrain of “His hand in my hand”. Such emotional intensity was redoubled in Mary Bevan’s portrayal of Mary Magdalene, who sang of the unfolding events with despair and anguish, separated physically and vocally from the all-male cast and chorus.

Those modulating roles hammered home one of the most important points the piece is making, not just that Judas is perhaps a sympathetic figure, whose betrayal is terrible but necessary to save humankind, but also that the role of bystander, perpetrator, victim are frighteningly fluid. Any of us could have called for Christ’s death and torture. In the 21st century, the secular resonances of this piece can't help but compel.