Harrison Birtwistle's The Last Supper served in Glasgow
Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Last Supper receives a semi-staged performance in Glasgow on 14 January, with Roderick Williams leading the disciples and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins.
Harrison Birtwistle's ritualistic drama looking back two millennia to the birth of Christianity receives its first Scottish performance on 14 January at a free invitation concert at Glasgow City Halls. The semi-staging is conducted by Martyn Brabbins, Music Director designate of English National Opera and a leading Birtwistle interpreter. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is joined by the BBC Singers and a strong cast led by Roderick Williams as Christ, John Daszak as Judas and Jennifer Johnston as Ghost. The performance will be broadcast on a future date by BBC Radio 3 in its Hear and Now series.
Co-commissioned by Glyndebourne, the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin and the Royal Festival Hall in London for the millennium celebrations in 2000, The Last Supper is scored for 14 soloists, small female chorus and chamber orchestra and sets a libretto by Robin Blaser. Birtwistle's starting point was examining how "a group of ordinary men – some of them fishermen, 'the salt of the earth' – were caught up in something extraordinary" and how this has resonated down the centuries as a bridge to our own time.
The opera is framed by an outside commentator, a choregos-like Ghost, who links us with the Biblical characters across 2000 years and, as with many of Birtwistle's stageworks, the drama explores the meeting of man and myth. This is most powerfully expressed in the relationship between Christ and Judas and the theme of betrayal threads through the work, both at the personal level and in terms of the church over the centuries. The Gospel narrative of the Last Supper proceeds through a series of tableaux, interrupted by three choral interludes inspired by the paintings of Spanish baroque artist Francisco de Zurbarán that freeze the dramatic flow. One of the most remarkable aspects of the score is Birtwistle's multi-layered writing for chorus: the 12 male disciples, a female Chorus Mysticus amplified from the pit, a shadowing pre-recorded female Chorus Resonus, and a pre-recorded 18-part mixed chamber chorus singing Three Latin Motets.
> Listen to the Three Latin Motets
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2017 sees Birtwistle in Portugal as featured composer at the Casa de Música in Porto, launched in three days of concerts with Earth Dances, Theseus Game and the Three Latin Motets from The Last Supper, performed by the Orquestra Sinfónica Casa da Música under Baldur Brönnimann, the Remix Ensemble with Peter Rundel and the Coro Casa da Música with Paul Hillier respectively (20-22 January). Highlights later in the year within Porto's focus on British music include the Violin Concerto with soloist Peter Herresthal conducted by Martyn Brabbins (11 March), Panic and ...agm... (29/30 April) and Silbury Air and The Moth Requiem (5/12 November).
> Casa da Música Porto
Birtwistle is currently completing a major orchestral work, Deep Time, for premiere by the Staatskapelle Berlin and Daniel Barenboim on 5 June at the Philharmonie in Berlin.
> Further information on Work: The Last Supper
Photo: Hanya Chlala/ArenaPAL