S&H Opera Review

Birtwistle The Last Supper Glyndebourne Touring Opera Glyndebourne Theatre, 21 October 2000 (PGW).

Premièred to acclamation in Berlin, Sir Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper bids fair to become one of his most popular works. The libretto by North American poet Robin Blaser serves well a re-exploration of the original crucifixion story in a contemporary context, bringing back into our own time the ordinary folk who became the small band of supporters celebrated in the Gospels through into the beginning of a new, third millennium since those far off times, that still resonate with myth and belief.

We ourselves become engaged in the discussion, being represented by an unfortunately titled 'Ghost' - very corporeal and sung superlatively well by Susan Bickley. In Martin Duncan's production and Alison Chitty's low-key designs, the eleven disciples enter, discuss and argue in a workaday manner, dressed in casual modern clothing. The table for the Passover supper is assembled speedily from a prefabricated kit, and the familiar ritual is re-enacted to a complex musical background, entirely typical of Birtwistle's later music but notably dark in its orchestral colours.

Until the arrival of Judas (Thomas Randle) I had doubts whether it would engage the attention theatrically. This screws up the drama of the immediate, new situation which we were sharing, and in a coup de theatre Jesus Christ himself (William Dazeley) has appeared in their midst whilst we are focused upon Judas, cowering against his fellow disciples' abuse, piled upon him at the far edge of the stage. Christ's compassion for Judas, who rationalises/explains his part in the tragedy which was a step to eternal glory, is a moving centre of Blaser's exploration of betrayal and evil devastation, of humanity and by humanity, through the ages - all in the name of Christianity. I found their scene together moving, and the acting and singing throughout realised the conception clearly, if maybe coolly.

Elgar Howarth conducted the orchestra of some 30 players, buried deeply in a pit with stage above, both behind and in front, with no violins and a battery of low brass & woodwind, also an accordion (prominent in Birtwistle's previous Glyndebourne opera) but, this intended to help to ensure word clarity. At Glyndebourne, supertitles were provided for the English text - anathema to purists and a source of long-running disputation. One can follow sung words, but often the total sense and poetry is elusive - a quick glance to the surtitles can refresh the memory, even for those of us who had read the libretto beforehand - without being seriously distracting for those who prefer not to. I am for surtitles at all times.

Two choruses participate, one pre-recorded and projected all round the auditorium. With press seats allocated near the front and at the extreme side, the aural picture was severely compromised - it was not always easy to distinguish between the two groups and the elaborate sound-in-the-round effects enjoyed elsewhere went for nothing; the opera-oratorio sounded as well in the subsequent broadcast's simple stereo at home, and it was easier there to follow the argument as a whole.

It is hoped that further reviews of this important religious work for our time will be forthcoming, and there will be opportunities to see Glyndebourne Touring Opera's production around the country, and to hear a concert performance at Queen Elizabeth Hall, before it returns in the main Glyndebourne Opera season next summer.

Peter Grahame Woolf

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