May 14, 2020
(++++) A NEW SORT-OF “MESSIAH”
Richard Danielpour: The Passion of Yeshua. Hila Plitmann, soprano; J’Nai Bridges, mezzo-soprano; Timothy Fallon, tenor; Matthew Worth, Kenneth Overton and James K. Bass, baritones; UCLA Chamber Singers and Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra conducted by JoAnn Falletta. Naxos. $25.99 (2 CDs).
Every time period has its own forms of acknowledgment, celebration and worship; and among Christians, every time period has its own way, musical and otherwise, of paying homage and tribute to Jesus. The way chosen by Richard Danielpour (born 1956) goes back to Hebrew, the original language of the Jews – of whom Jesus was one – and returns to the original form of Jesus’ name, Yeshua, which was a common one at the time and is attached to numerous characters in the Bible. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the name Jesus was rendered as beginning with the equivalent of an “I,” there being no “J” in Greek. The “J” results from a 16th-century typographical error that was perpetuated in later printings of the Bible. But none of this particularly matters to believers, any more than do the differing pronunciations of “J” and therefore of “Jesus” in modern languages. The reference is what matters, and the reference is clear.
Nevertheless, Danielpour’s use of the original name, complemented by his inclusion of Hebrew passages among the English ones in his “Dramatic Oratorio in Fourteen Scenes,” shows how determined the composer is to revisit Christ’s Passion from an angle both new and as old as the Gospels themselves. Naxos’ world première recording of The Passion of Yeshua (2017) does full justice to Danielpour’s vision, thanks to the strong involvement and fine vocal talents of half a dozen soloists and the highly committed, knowing and knowledgeable conducting with which JoAnn Falletta shapes the performances of the UCLA Chamber Singers and the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra.
In line with the common modern focus on the human side of Yeshua/Jesus, The Passion of Yeshua is filled with emotionally engaging, involving music that explores the pain and suffering of Christ’s last days on Earth. In line with the contemporary desire to increase the prominence of women in narratives of all sorts, The Passion of Yeshua makes both Jesus’ mother Mary (here “Miryam,” sung by J’Nai Bridges) and Mary Magdalene (here “Miryam Magdala,” sung by Hila Plitmann) as prominent in the oratorio as is Yeshua (Kenneth Overton) himself. The result is a greater contemplation of compassion and forgiveness than a focus on the more-abstract notion of divinity-made-human and the attainment of eternal life through unswerving belief. And Danielpour’s music fits the emotional tone and undertone of the libretto, which he himself adapted and assembled, very well. The musical medium he chooses is essentially tonal, the choruses in particular having an old-fashioned massed feeling that recalls elements of the Baroque without in any way imitating (or even paying direct tribute to) the works of the Baroque masters. When Danielpour uses dissonance, he does so movingly and even cleverly: for example, rather than employing it obviously in the fifth scene, “Betrayal,” he uses it in the chorus of the seventh, “Interlude,” which immediately follows the longest scene of all, “Gethsemane.”
Danielpour’s treatment of the events is full of surprising, very effective touches. The fifth scene, “Intermezzo: In the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” is only slightly gloomy and in some respects is almost tender, as if anticipating Yeshua’s conquest of death and the redemption, through his sacrifice, of all believers. The 11th scene, “Behold the Man,” lapses into percussive barbarousness when the crowd demands of Pilate (Timothy Fallon) the release not of Yeshua but of Barabbas. And the 12th scene, “Via Dolorosa,” although certainly dark enough, features a high, operatic soprano that floats above the somber instrumental material; here too is there an implication that the pain, sorrow and suffering in the straightforward story (which is moved at an appropriate pace by narrator Matthew Worth) are scarcely the whole meaning here, or even the most important one.
The Passion of Yeshua is a long work, running more than an hour and three quarters. But like Handel’s Messiah, to which it is something of a counterpart (and which is even longer), Danielpour’s piece includes enough differences in its scenes and enough differentiation among its characters to retain audience interest throughout. In fact, Danielpour offers a 21st-century audience an alternative way of looking at the last days of Yeshua/Jesus, one that coexists with and complements the approach of Handel and his librettist, Charles Jennens. Messiah proceeds operatically, but without a strong focus on Jesus or any other character: to the extent that there is a protagonist, it is the chorus, which is to say all of humanity. It is a macrocosmic view of events, a brilliant one that encompasses a promise to all people. The Passion of Jeshua is far more personalized. The troubles and suffering of Yeshua/Jesus are central here, but so are the feelings of Miryam and Miryam Magdala: their sorrow provides a microcosm of the pain of all, a pain that only Danielpour’s 14th scene, “Epilogue,” truly resolves with a message of peace and resolution that is thoroughly effective and deeply reassuring. The sheer beauty of Handel’s music, and the comfort level its words provide to those who share the beliefs of his time, have kept Messiah vital and meaningful for nearly 300 years. But because we live in a far more secular age than Handel’s, and one with a far more diverse set of religious and spiritual beliefs, Danielpour’s oratorio, with its strong focus on the human side of the New Testament narrative, fits our time period just as snugly and securely as Handel’s Messiah fit his.