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Birtwistle's The Io Passion opens Aldeburgh Festival

(June 2004)

Birtwistle's The Io Passion opens Aldeburgh Festival

Harrison Birtwistle's new chamber opera, The Io Passion, received a high profile premiere as the opening event of the Aldeburgh Festival on 11 June. This launched a 70th birthday feature on Birtwistle’s music at the Suffolk festival where, in a different period and climate, his groundbreaking Punch and Judy received a frosty reception back in 1968.

Like the earlier work, The Io Passion combines a small cast with a chamber ensemble, here four singers and two actors combined with the basset clarinet and string quartet of Alan Hacker and Quatuor Diotima. The libretto is by Stephen Plaice with staging by Stephen Langridge in designs by Alison Chitty.

Further performances by the opera’s co-commissioners follow at Almeida Opera in London (6/7/9/10 Jul) and the Bregenz Festival (25/26 Jul). An autumn tour of Northern England takes the work to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (20 November), Manchester (26 November) and Durham (29 November).

The Io Passion
explores a number of key preoccupations for the composer, most noticeably the meeting point between personal history and ritual retelling, and the use of cyclical rather than linear forms. Set essentially in the present, a hidden intimate story takes on mythic dimensions as successive layers are gradually revealed. Reality and dream mingle with doubling singers and actors mirroring the actions, drawing the two protagonists back to their past.

On the site of the forgotten Mysteries of Lerna, a compulsive relationship between a man and a woman reawakens the buried gods, who scent a sacrifice. The outrage has never been avenged. Back in the city, the woman refuses to see the man, clinging to her domestic routine and trying to deal with the terrible manifestation they witnessed in Greece. But neither the gods nor the man will leave the woman alone, and the civilised veneer of her existence is gradually stripped away.
Stephen Plaice

The Myth of Io
It came to Io in a dream that she should go to the pastures of Lerna where her father’s sheep and oxen were grazed. Though some say her father, Inachus, sent her to Lerna because he wished to hide her beauty from Zeus by passing her off as a rough shepherdess. It was here, in any case, that Zeus came to her, perhaps in the form of a young bull, muscular and playful, with the intention of seducing her.

Hera, Zeus’s wife, was tired of his infidelities. She followed him to Lerna to see what he was up to. Zeus just had time to turn Io into a white heifer which he pretended was a gift for Hera. Hera remained suspicious and put the heifer into the safe-keeping of Argus Panoptes, the many-eyed dog. She told Argus to take the heifer and tether it to an olive-tree in Nemea. But Zeus, who could not contain his passion for Io, sent Hermes in the form of a woodpecker to bring her back to him. Hermes realised he could not steal Io back for Zeus without being seen by one of Argus’s eyes. So he charmed the dog asleep by playing the flute, then crushed him with a boulder and set the heifer free.

> Further information on Work: The Io Passion

Photo: Aldeburgh Almeida Opera/Ivan Kyncl

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