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Birtwistle's Last Supper travels from Berlin to Glyndebourne |
Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper, premiered to great acclaim at the Berlin Staatsoper in April under the baton of Daniel Barenboim, travels to the UK for performances by Glyndebourne Touring Opera between 21 October and 7 December. The work offers a totally individual dramatic interpretation of a historic turning point in Western and Christian civilisation, refracted across 2000 years of humanity. The Times reviewer described the new stagework as "a score of prodigious inventiveness, perfectly riveting from beginning to end of its unbroken two-hour span" and noted how the composer's "sense of dramatic structure remains infallible".
The Last Supper was co-commissioned by Glyndebourne, the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin and the Royal Festival Hall, London. This co-production is by Martin Duncan in designs by Alison Chitty, with singers Susan Bickley, Thomas Randle and William Dazeley in principal roles. The UK premiere is given by Glyndebourne Touring Opera on 21 October under the baton of Elgar Howarth followed by a tour of England (30 October - 7 December), and a concert performances at the South Bank Centre in London on 26 January 2001. The production then appears at the Glyndebourne Festival in summer 2001, opening on 4 August.
Avoiding a conventional operatic retelling of the biblical events, Birtwistle and librettist Robin Blaser have subtitled the work "dramatic tableaux" and built it from a series of stage pictures unfolding on a number of interacting layers. These are viewed from a contemporary perspective and effectively fuse the spiritual reflection and questioning drawn from the oratorio tradition, with a more direct, theatrical engagement driven by the urgency of the disciples - "the 'salt of the earth' caught up in something extraordinary", as the composer has described them. The Observer characterised Robin Blaser's text as "rich in allusion and magpie borrowing from Christian liturgy, the metaphysical poets and other sources ancient and modern...in the theatre it worked with astonishing clarity and good sense, a model libretto with barely a word in excess and most of it audible, especially when it mattered most".
"The 11 disciples gather in the present day to review two millennia of the religious movement whose birth they witnessed. They philosophise, pray, gossip and dance - until the appearance of Judas, whom they attempt, despite his protestations of innocence, to ostracize. When Jesus himself appears and claims, "I am here to wash off the dust of centuries," he defends Judas. "Who is the betrayer? What has been betrayed?" Christ taunts his disciples. And with those words he forces the 11 to re-admit Judas to the circle of apostles... Ultimately Christ and the apostles enter the olive garden. The cock crows. The end. What hardly seems like musico-dramatic material is transformed into an utterly gripping uninterrupted two hours of music theatre thanks to a compelling libretto by Blaser and the unyieldingly riveting music of Birtwistle. The Last Supper is a natural musical and theatrical heir to the greatest works of the century which explore major Judaeo-Christian themes... A premiere of enormous stature; a complete triumph for all concerned" Die Welt
"The only female protagonist, a figure called Ghost, acts as the bridge between the past and the present. While a chorus in the pit comments and proclaims, she gathers the disciples - minus Judas - together once again... When Judas finally appears to complete the group the mood darkens and becomes confrontational... Susan Bickley as Ghost and Thomas Randle as Judas are outstanding. She is the pivot around which the whole work revolves, its conscience and its emotional heart; he is its dark side, hunted, remorseful, and strangely compelling...It is Christ's appearance that triggers the first of three 'visions' which break the continuity of the second half of the work. Each time, the stage darkens, and to the sound of a pre-recorded chorus singing some of the most intense and rapturously beautiful music Birtwistle has ever written, the betrayal, the stations of the cross and the crucifixion are acted out in reverse order... Daniel Barenboim conducted the first performance wonderfully; it was he who secured the premiere for Berlin, and his faith has been repaid with a fascinating work." The Guardian
"Each of the Apostles is vividly and individually drawn, in vocal writing that is sensitive, lyrical and largely audible. Jesus himself is all sweetness and light. Most wonderful of all, however, is the series of three laments, sung by a pre-recorded off-stage chorus, which interrupts the action and illustrates stages of Jesus's martyrdom in music of shimmering beauty and reverence... on stage the scenario is undoubtedly effective. Strong and simple, it passes the acid operatic test of being broadly comprehensible even if you can't hear the words, and there was no mistaking the first night audience's involvement in the drama. The performance was superb... I am sure that this is a work that will reward anyone open to its challenges. It proves, above all that, in his mid-sixties, Birtwistle is still growing, still changing, a composer of great stature and integrity..." Daily Telegraph
"...a magnificent and enthralling work... Bewitched by numbers, codes and ciphers, Harrison Birtwistle hears the world as an irresistible mystery of patterns and correlations. Their arcane beauty is built into the brickwork of his music in a way that our senses discern, even if our ears may not always hear... Birtwistle has created a powerfully melancholic soundworld, at once richly lyrical and hieratic. Throughout, either the vocal line or an obbligato instrument seems to forge through the piece like a stratum, over and above which instruments rush and buzz in flurries of agitated semiquavers like energised iron filings round a magnet... The cheers and applause lasted 15 minutes. Book now." The Observer
Birtwistle's Three Latin Motets, forming the meditative core of The Last Supper, are also available for separate concert performance. These choral visions of the Passion are settings of Latin religious texts, are scored for 18-part a cappella chorus, and have a total duration of 13 minutes. A choral score is now on sale.
To hear music from the Three Latin Motets from The Last Supper, click here.
> Further information on The Last Supper
>Further information on Last Supper: libretto
Photo: Deutsche Staatsoper/Monika Rittershaus