A Grecian Turn and Return at Aldeburgh from Birtwistle and Harsent

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Harrison Birtwistle, The Corridor and The Cure: Aldeburgh Festival 2015, London Sinfonietta / Geoffrey Paterson (conductor), The Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, 15.6.2015 (MH)

Woman (Eurydice) & Medea: Elizabeth Atherton (soprano)
Man (Orpheus) & Jason / Aeson: Mark Padmore (tenor)
Orchestra (Shades): London Sinfonietta

Director: Martin Duncan
Designer: Alison Chitty
Lighting Designer: Paul Pyant
Choreographer: Michael Popper


The Aldeburgh Festival of 2015 brings together a wide range of music together with walks, talks, films and visual art exhibitions. Based at Snape Maltings in rural Suffolk it is a unique platform for both performers and audiences to share in musical experiences.  Just as the operas of Benjamin Britten were considered modern in his time, Aldeburgh today gave us two short operas by Harrison Birtwistle –  The Corridor (2009)and The Cure. The second opera was premièred on the opening night of the 2015 Festival.

Both operas have text by David Harsent and deal with specific moments in Greek mythology. The Corridor takes as a theme the moment when Orpheus leading Eurydice out of Hades TURNS to look for her, thus breaking his pact with the Gods and losing her forever. In The Cure – Jason asks the witch Medea to RETURN his ageing Father, Aeson, to youth once again in exchange for ten years of his own life – a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The Britten Studio was dark and intimate as a performance space with a slightly raked stage, and the studio acoustic was excellent and the capacity audience hushed, save for a few clearly suffering from hay fever. The set for The Corridor was simple with a doorway “going down” and another leading into the light of day. The six orchestral members were on-stage forming the line of the corridor between doorways and later effectively acting as Shades. Those in hell were dressed, like Eurydice, in neutral grey whilst the harpist [Orpheus’ lyre] in the daylight was clad in white.

Elizabeth Atherton & Mark Padmore in The Corridor at Aldeburgh Festival. Photo by Clive Barda_ArenaPAL
Elizabeth Atherton & Mark Padmore in The Corridor at Aldeburgh Festival. Photo by Clive Barda_ArenaPAL

The Cure also had the orchestra on-stage, but this time to stage right of the action. Here there was a green ring floor cloth with herbs of the earth, inside it a burial mound shaped collection of rocks and  minerals with an up-stage abstract tree stump. In both operas the lighting designed by Paul Pyant was an integral part of the staging and most effective both in interpreting the musical mood and drama. The changing phases of the moon in The Cure being most effective.

Martin Duncan’s direction was simple & positive with rather measured movement much of the time contrasting well with the spell casting writhings of Medea, expressively choreographed by Michael Popper. Of particular note was the difficult progressive transformation of Old Aeson  to a younger man, requiring not only double role playing by the tenor but rapid, ingenious mask/wig changes.
The music of Harrison Birtwistle often takes a little time to get into. Just as you feel you know where it is going it changes direction. Perhaps this is what makes it draw you in to the dramatic situations it is reflecting. The interplay between the instrumentalists and Eurydice in The Corridor, where the players and the heroine had virtual dialogue together was a particular highlight. The Cure was easier on the ear and the libretto of Harsent clearer in this second Greek mini drama. Its music was very expressive, flowing harmoniously with the moonrise and then becoming harshly jagged for the magical rituals of Medea.

Elizabeth Atherton & Mark Padmore in The Corridor at Aldeburgh Festival. Photo by Clive Barda_ArenaPAL
Elizabeth Atherton & Mark Padmore in The Corridor at Aldeburgh Festival. Photo by Clive Barda_ArenaPAL


Elizabeth Atherton (soprano) lives each of her roles and it shows in every gesture. She inhabited the doubt and sorrow of Eurydice and the harsh wizardry of the witch with total commitment. Not only a considerable feat in learning the music, but in expressing each nuance of character so convincingly. It is not surprising that her role in The Corridor was written for her.

Playing two roles in the same opera and getting younger instead of older is something most tenors may find difficult. Not so for Mark Padmore (tenor) who was excellent both vocally and dramatically throughout. His several changes of mask and wig in The Cure, having climbed a tree and appeared from beneath the earth, whilst minutes before singing the role of his son would be enough to tire any voice. Padmore sang with a thrilling tone and perfect diction. He was also a sympathetic partner in song to Atherton.

Geoffrey Paterson guided both the London Sinfonietta and the singers with consummate skill seated in front of the platform and using a video link, so as not to obstruct the view of the front rows.  His familiarity with the piece was obvious, knowing every word and nuance.

Co-commissioned and co-produced by the Aldeburgh Festival and the Royal Opera with additional support from the London Sinfonietta, this Double Bill will be performed at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Covent Garden from 20th-27th June, 2015


Martyn Harrison

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