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

Guillaume Tell, Covent Garden

It is twenty-three years since Rossini’s opera of cultural oppression, inspiring heroism and tender pathos was last seen on the Covent Garden stage, but this eagerly awaited new production of Guillaume Tell by Italian director Damiano Micheletto will be remembered more for the audience outrage and vociferous mid-performance booing that it provoked — the most persistent and strident that I have heard in this house — than for its dramatic, visual or musical impact.

Aida, Opera Holland Park

With its outrageous staging demands, you sometimes wonder why opera companies want to produce Verdi’s Aida. But the piece is about far more than pharaohs, pyramids and camels.

Death in Venice, Garsington Opera

Given the enduring resonance and impact of the magnificent visual aesthetic of Visconti’s 1971 film of Thomas Mann’s novella, opera directors might be forgiven for concluding that Britten’s Death in Venice does not warrant experimentation with period and design, and for playing safe with Edwardian elegance, sweeping Venetian vistas and stylised seascapes.

La Rondine Swoops Into St. Louis

If La Rondine (The Swallow) is a less-admired work than rest of the mature Puccini canon, you wouldn’t have known it by the lavish production now lovingly staged by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Emmeline a Stunner in Saint Louis

Few companies have championed new or neglected works quite as fervently and consistently as the industrious Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Luminous Handel in Saint Louis

For Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, “everything old is new again.”

Two Women in San Francisco

Why would an American opera company devote its resources to the premiere of an opera by an Italian composer? Furthermore a parochially Italian story?

Les Troyens in San Francisco

Berlioz’ Les Troyens is in two massive parts — La prise de Troy and Troyens à Carthage.

Dog Days at REDCAT

On Saturday evening June 13, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Dog Days, a new opera with music by David T. Little and a text by Royce Vavrek. In the opera adopted from a story of the same name by Judy Budnitz, thirteen-year-old Lisa tells of her family’s mental and physical disintegration resulting from the ravages of a horrendous war.

Opera Las Vegas Presents Exquisite Madama Butterfly

Audiences at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan first saw Madama Butterfly on February 17, 1904. It was not the success it is these days, and Puccini revised it before its scheduled performances in Brescia.

Yardbird, Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is a very well-managed opera company with a great vision. Every year it presents a number of well-known “warhorse” operas, usually in the venerable Academy of Music, and a few more adventurous productions, usually in a chamber opera format suited to the smaller Pearlman Theater.

Giovanni Paisiello: Il Barbiere di Siviglia

Written in 1783, Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia reigned for three decades as one of Europe’s most popular operas, before being overshadowed forever by Rossini’s classic work.

Princeton Festival: Le Nozze di Figaro

The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.

Die Entführung aus dem Serail,
Glyndebourne

Die Entführung aus dem Serail was Mozart’s first great public success in Vienna, and it became the composer’s most oft performed opera during his lifetime.

German Lieder Is Given a Dramatic Twist by The Ensemble for the Romantic Century

The Ensemble for the Romantic Century offered a thoughtful and well-curated evening in their production of The Sorrows of Young Werther, which is part theatrical performance and part art song concert.

Hans Werner Henze: Ein Landarzt and Phaedra

This was an adventurous double bill of two ‘quasi-operas’ by Hans Werner Henze, performed by young singers who are studying on the postgraduate Opera Course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Dido and Aeneas, Spitalfields Festival

High brick walls, a cavernous space, entered via a narrow passage just off a London thoroughfare: Village Underground in Shoreditch is probably not that far removed from the venue in which Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas was first performed — whether that was Josiah Priest’s girl’s school in Chelsea or the court of Charles II or James II.

Intermezzo, Garsington Opera

Hats off to Garsington for championing once again some criminally neglected Strauss. I overheard someone there opine, ‘Of course, you can understand why it isn’t done very often.’

Cosi fan tutte, Garsington Opera

Mozart and Da Ponte’s Cosi fan tutte provides little in the way of background or back story for the plot, thus allowing directors to set the piece in a variety settings.

The Queen of Spades, ENO

Based on a play, Chrysomania (The Passion for Money), by the Russian playwright Prince Alexander Shokhovskoy, Pushkin’s short story The Queen of Spades is, in the words of one literary critic, ‘a sardonic commentary on the human condition’.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

Harrison Birtwistle
17 Aug 2009

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: Mask of Orpheus at the Proms

What drives Harrison Birtwistle to Greek myth? Orpheus is a primal archetype. When he played his lyre he tamed wild beasts and made mountains move. But he suffered. He journeyed into Hades but could not bring Eurydice, his beloved, back to life. In some versions of the myth, his talent enraged the jealous who tore him apart. Yet even then, his head remained intact, still singing. He symbolizes the power of music, and the fate of an artist.

Sir Harrison Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus
Igor Stravinsky: Apollo
Jonny Greenwood Popcorn Superhet Receiver

Alan Oke (Orpheus the man), Thomas Walker (Orpheus the Myth,) Christine Rice (Euridice the woman Anna Stephany (Euridice the myth, Persephone), Claron McFadden (Hecate), Andrew Slater (Charon/Caller/Hades), Rachel Nichoills, Anna Dennis, Luoise Poole (the Furies), Chrsitopher Gillett, Håkan Vramsmo, Tim Mirfin (the Judges), Ian Dearden (Sound Projection)(, Tim Hopkins (Director), BBC Singers, Stephen Betteridge chorus master, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins, Ryan Wigglesworth (conductors)

Prom 39 Royal Albert Hall, 14th August 2009

Above: Harrison Birtwistle

 

But Birtwistle’s early opera, “The Mask of Orpheus” isn’t narrative, but an intuitive experience. The full work has only been heard once in production, at the English National Opera in 1986. The recording on NMC was made at a concert performance some years later. At this Prom only the second Act was performed. In isolation, then, we were thrown into Orpheus’s journey in full flow. In some ways, it doesn’t matter so much that we don’t know the past or future. The act unfolds in realtime, so we’re experiencing it on its own terms. This reflects Birtwistle’s concept of different layers of time, identity and action, each operating semi-independently and in parallel.

Each persona has its shadows, Orpheus is both Alan Oke the “man” (whatever that might signify) and Thomas Walker the “myth”. Euridice is both Christine Rice the “woman” and Anna Stéphany (outstanding) as Euridice the “myth” and later Persephone, like Euridice, stolen from life by the underworld. In the original (and only) production, puppets were used, to further fragment the idea of persona. In myths, personas change. They are symbols, like images in a dream. Against these multi-faceted roles, Birtwistle juxtaposes multiple choruses, the Furies (Rachel Nicholls, Anna Dennis and Louise Poole), and the judges (Christopher Gillett, Håkan Vramsmo and Tim Mirfin) and a Greek Chorus of BBC Singers. Intricate patterns are embedded in their music too. The Furies’ and Judges’ lines waver in a rolling sequence of pitches, replicated on a wider scale by the chorus. Birtwistle is doing his puzzles and mazes thing again, his “secret geometry”.

Over the singers towers the Voice of Apollo, which Birtwistle describes as an aura. It is an invisible presence but infuses the whole opera with another, unearthly dimension, even when it can’t be heard. It’s a sound projection, created in IRCAM and here realized by Tim Dearden, who does so much of this work in London. The Voice boomed from beneath the towering dome of the Royal Albert Hall into the vast auditorium, an extraordinary use of space and physics as theatre. When the eerie Voice sounds, members of the orchestra greet it by holding up mirrors to catch light. Tiny particles of light project into the building, like extra-terrestrial fireflies. The mirrors are a pun on what’s happening in the music itself. This “mirroring” also captures the connection between Gods and mortals, between stage reality and artistic vision. Tim Hopkins’ semi-staging is intelligent, giving maximum impact with minimal effort, like myths themselves which expand in the mind though the original sources are but fragments.

Complex interrelationships suffuse the whole work. The only really distinct presence is that of Hecate, the ambiguous goddess of death and rebirth, wonderfully sung by Claron McFadden high in the orchestra loft, but even Hecate is a multiple figure, often depicted as a trinity. There are two conductors, Martyn Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth, for the overlapping threads in the orchestration. The small vocal choruses are echoed by the harps, mirroring the spirit of Orpheus and his lyre. The music for large chorus reflects the voice of Apollo. The semi-silent Song of Magic in the first Arch gives way to a “chorus of Hell”, a percussion ensemble that gradually dominates with noisy persistence. It adds important tension, like “reality” (whatever that means) banging on the doors of the dream. Indeed, the gradual awakening gives rise to some of the most striking passages in the whole work.

In the 15th Arch, Orpheus’s vocal line totally shatters into clipped fragments, heard against the impenetrable wail of chorus and sound projection. After a few seconds of silence it dawns on Orpheus that he isn’t going to bring Euridice out of Hades, for the forces against him are too great. All he can do is call out “Euridice!”, endlessly, extending the syllables as if making the word whole can draw her back. No wonder this is the “Arch of Ropes” where legato is broken, twined and stretched like rope: a strong image of connection, but a connection that is broken.

This is the moment Birtwistle freeze frames in The Corridor, the fifteen minute scena premiered at Aldeburgh in June 2009. It is the critical point in the whole saga. To miss its significance is to miss the whole point, which is why Birtwistle returned to it, 35 years after first embarking on his Orpheus odyssey. Indeed, “”The Corridor is “The Mask of Orpheus” condensed into sharpest focus :it is a much more powerful work than generally appreciated. Since “The Mask of Orpheus” is so difficult to stage and perhaps to follow, “The Corridor ” will stand as Birtwistle’s moment of lucid clarity.

Oke stands alone, at the top of the platform, while Apollo groans from the skies: a true moment of Greek tragedy. How amazing it must be in full production, after all the images of puppets and multiple personas, intricate musical patterns and elaborations.

The 17th Arch, the Arch of Fear is extraordinarily beautiful in its stark simplicity. Orpheus is in the “real” world again but he’s still unable to comprehend. “Did I build this stone shelter over the dark cave?” he asks. “Above my head is stone, Under my feet is rock”. Birtwistle sets the simple words with amazing cadences, leaping out of an almost staccato, half-spoken baseline. The words “rock”, “summer grass”, “stream” and “nightmares” jump outwards as if they had a life of their own. Then the Other Orpheus sings single words “Fear. Caught. Time. Lost”. Between each word, silence but for the rising sounds of the orchestra. Suddenly, this Orpheus takes off into shining lyricism: two words : “Tide moan”. Their meaning is too deep to express by rational logic.

Euridice calls Orpheus’s name, but the syllables break up, as if lost in transmission across the void that now keeps them apart. No more words. Only elusive music, possibly the Voice of Apollo. In the original, uhe plot is complicated, and Orpheus hangs himself. Here, instead, Alan Oke walks round the stage and into the audience, silently touching people on the shoulder, in an echo of the 9th Arch, the “arch of awareness. Meaning to touch”. Those who get touched in the orchestra and choir pass it on to others. This symbolizes the concept that life and death are a continuum. It also fits better with the idea that Orpheus’s spirit, which is music, lives on whenever people communicate. The suicide solution might have been an option in 1973/5 but in view of everything Birtwistle has done since then, it’s a cop-out. This new “ending” is aesthetically more satisfying.

The performance was preceded by Stravinsky’s ballet “Apollo” which was a good idea, for Apollo was Orpheus’s father, who gave him the Lyre and the gift of Music. It’s surprisngly austere Stravinsky, presaging his interest in classicism and the baroque. Not really so very different from Birtwistle, the “wild man” of British music, whose notorious image belies music of sensitivity and poise, which also harks back to early music. Apollo was preceded by Jonny Greenwood’s “!Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” which uses similar orchestration, and has the whole violin section standing to attention.

Anne Ozorio

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):