Two Outstanding Chamber Operas By Birtwistle

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Birtwistle: The Corridor, The Cure: Soloists, London Sinfonietta, Geoffrey Paterson (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 18.6.2015 (MB)

Woman (Eurydice)/Medea – Elizabeth Atherton
Man (Orpheus)/Jason, Aeson – Mark Padmore


Martin Duncan (director)
Alison Chitty (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
Michael Popper (choreography)


Outstanding in pretty much every way – just what an opera house should be doing, in this case in collaboration with Aldeburgh and the London Sinfonietta. Although The Corridor was premiered in 2009, with the same cast, this was my first encounter; and The Cure had been given its first performance but a few days earlier, again in Aldeburgh. The two chamber operas could clearly work separately, and I hope that they will, in conjunction with any number of other works. In tandem, however, there are all manner of connections one may make, whether as performer, director, or audience. Agency, not least female agency, is but the most obvious, although that is not to minimise its importance. Identical instrumentation (violin, viola, cello, harp, flute, clarinet) and, in this case, an identical cast, served to strengthen unity, but also to allow us to consider what is different.

The Corridor takes us, once again, to that foundational musical myth so beloved of Birtwistle, that of Orpheus. But a moment – his turning back, wondering why Eurydice is not by his side – and then a lifetime’s reaction. David Harsent and his composer have us ask whether Eurydice in fact ever really wanted to leave Hades. She was lagging behind and Orpheus wonders where she has gone, turning around involuntarily. Love and tragedy are expressed in their laments following the event, but did they ever have a chance, second time around? She interacts with the players in Martin Duncan’s straightforward, powerful staging, not unlike one of those increasingly popular stagings of Bach’s Passions. Birtwistle’s score steers a fascinating path between tight rhythmic cellular writing and something more capable of subdivision, even perhaps rubato (or at least homage to Monteverdian freedom?) Stravinsky versus Schoenberg, we still might say. Or rather, Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

Birtwistle’s love of antique wildness exhibits itself once again: a reinvented antique wildness, not born from our paltry knowledge of ancient music, but something far more powerful. But there is no sense that we have heard this all before, for we have not. Fourths and fifths seem to speak to us from the age of organum – and beyond. The harp – what writing he has always offered for that instrument! – is no stranger to calamity, to catastrophic caesura. Vocal lines, in impassioned performances by Mark Padmore and Elizabeth Atherton, speak again of the invention that comes with longstanding assurance. Everything draws in – and makes us rethink what we thought we knew.

The Cure was conceived explicitly as a companion piece. Here, in the words of the excellent conductor, Geoffrey Paterson, the six solo instrumentalists of a work that had come close to ‘secular oratorio, for much of its duration’ coalesce ‘into a mini orchestra whose endlessly varied colouristic possibilities are at the service of a viscerally operatic scenario’. As ostinato builds up climactically, but never predictably, we reach the (again surprising) climax of a tale adapted by Harsent from John Gower, who in turn had adapted it from Ovid. Medea and Jason having returned to Colchis with the Golden Fleece, Jason offers to give ten of his years, that his father, Aeson, might regain some youth. Medea uses her magic instead, but did Aeson, partially transformed, actually want to be rejuvenated?

Again, then, we are made to think, and rethink. Birtwistle’s ritualistic response to Harsent’s ritual spells screws up tension – both conventionally and unconventionally. Duncan’s staging, with Alison Chitty’s typically primæval yet modern designs, again draws us in to a work that seems to take its cue perhaps more from the Birtwistle of The Minotaur than the composer of The Mask of Orpheus. Circles, numbers, and their properties: verbally, musically, scenically, they have us recall Gawain, yet also remind us that this is a different myth, a different response. The performances from all concerned seemed to me beyond reproach. Padmore and Atherton had us forget they had even appeared on stage before; Padmore even had me wonder whether it was indeed he singing both Jason and Aeson, so differentiated were his responses. Atherton’s wild dignity struck just the right note. in every respect.

My immediate reaction was to want to hear both works again. Then, doubtless, like the works themselves with respect to earlier tellings of their myths, my responses would both deepen and change. These are both chamber operas we shall need to hear again and again.

Mark Berry


For a review of the Aldeburgh performance see

Leave a Comment