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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

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