Birtwistle’s double-bill which opened at the Linbury Studio Theatre below Covent Garden last night comprises The Corridor (2004) and The Cure (2015). Both were commissioned by Aldeburgh, and both were made for Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton; the scores fitted their voices like hands and gloves. They both explore coming back to life, both explore the prospect of coming back to life and dealing with renewed (im)mortality. The prospect of a second death, of returning to the underworld is the philosophical heart of these works, despite the setting in Classical mythology, this surely draws on draws on the Judeo-Christian notion of Second Death as punishment.
The Linbury was apt, not just for its small-scale, but also The Corridor features the moment when Orpheus leads Eurydice out of hell. Don’t look back is the deal: if you, you will lose her forever. The opera explores the moments around Orpheus looking back and losing his beloved forever, and the torment inflicted on himself and his lover at this moment. The programme listed them as Woman (Eurydice) and Man (Orpheus) – presumably to render universal, essential. Librettist David Harsent, suggests in a programme interview, he was dealing with the turning around because you realise someone isn’t there. All the same, back down to Hades goes Eurydice, conversing with the on-stage musicians as she does, interrogating them about what happened and its meaning, and receiving musical answers in reply. The musicians took on the role of demonic tormentors. In her exasperation there was something reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy’s World’s Wife.
The staging (Alison Chitty) was pared back in the extreme. Two arches to form doorways – the drama took place within the liminal space between these. Behind the first, at the back of the stage, a hole into hell; beyond the second arch, a green area with a box of mementoes over which Orpheus lamented. Its simplicity allowed the music the resonate fully. The musicians were on stage, with the harp only in the land of the living, the others were apparently dead. Gentle, pensive lighting by Paul Pyant did so much to accentuate the drama.
The Cure started with a green ring on the stage in which a kind of tree and some rocks were established. This circle bounded Medea’s power. A great number of herbs were positioned around this ring (something like the side of a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, dare I suggest- the bar ought to have had themed cocktails). These herbs were collected by Medea, rendered into a potion. When Jason asked her to bring back his dead father, she obliged; the resurrected father was also played by Padmore; indeed this small set provided a surprising number of coups. Quite how Padmore managed to alternate between his father and himself, with such speed and conviction, I will never be able to fathom. Resurrected, Aeson is not thrilled at the prospect of life and death again – something of the Wotan seeking an end about this moment.
Music came from the London Sinfonietta. In stark contrast to the cast of thousands (well hundreds) for Nelsons’ Mahler 3 the previous night with the CBSO, there were six musicians here and two singers. This comparison did serve to highlight the extraordinary intimacy of the Linbury Studio. It seemed as it was a private performance and the audience was clearly gripped by the sheer intensity. The score itself made for remarkably easy listening – not all contemporary opera offers this. Actually it would make a sublime introduction to someone new to either contemporary opera or opera altogether.
Neither Elizabeth Atherton nor Mark Padmore require any introduction. The Corridor was made for Padmore and The Cure for Atherton .These were performances of an astonishing directness, clarity, audibility and emotion.
Overall: intense, spare, mesmerizing.
Production page. In rep until 27 June.
As Kobbé will be stumped, the ROH has a useful page here.
Music: Harrison Birtwistle
Libretto: David Harsent
Director: Martin Duncan
Designs: Alison Chitty
Lighting design: Paul Pyant
Choreography: Michael Popper
Conductor: Geoffrey Paterson
Orchestra: London Sinfonietta
Soprano: Elizabeth Atherton
Tenor: Mark Padmore