I just designated The Last Supper an opera; its precise generic status is perhaps deliberately problematical. The piece seems to replay a meeting of the twelve disciples, joined by Christ and a female Ghost, within the context of a timeless, mythical present. Often highly static and devoid of action, declamatory in procedure, and running for over 100 minutes without interval, oratorio springs to mind as its real home, to which end its curious that no commentator has pointed out the works affinity to Elgars The Apostles. So opera-oratorio, or meditation maybe Birtwistle and his librettist, the poet Robin Blaser, term it Dramatic Tableaux, have deliberately set out to blur the boundaries, seeking perhaps a new hybrid form for the onset of a new century.
As The Last Supper is being presented in an opera house, does it work as opera? Partly. Theres little to engage ongoing visual attention in Alison Chittys monochrome, wall- with-a-door-in-it set; somewhat (again deliberately?) drab, contemporary casual wear costumes all thirteen men; choreographer Sean Walshs forced attempts to inject ritual gesture amounts to little more than workshop movement routines. That said, director Martin Duncan does seem to have sharpened up individual psychology and motive since last autumn; the committed cast works hard to render their situation with urgency and impact. Opera? It still makes Parsifal seem like The Merry Widow in comparison.
Part of the problem originates with Blasers wordy, arch and allusion-littered libretto that rarely seems to reveal the wood for the trees. What is its ultimate message? That Judas is as much a victim of the space/time continuum as Christ, that we are all culpable for Christs betrayal, indeed that we continue to betray him? The words are there for all to read as surtitles, which might have purists or Birtwistle detractors (or both) up in arms. If Birtwistles word-setting is so clotted, dense and atonal that we cant make out the singers words might be how the argument goes. That argument is deflated because a great percentage of the text comes across loud and clear. Glyndebournes pristine acoustic helps, as does the input of a superb cast. Its only female voice, Susan Bickley as the Ghost, sets the standard from the off; William Dazeleys rich baritone as Jesus and Tom Randles ringing tenor Judas maintain the vocal excellence; all the remaining disciples, singing in a range of registers from counter-tenor to bass, make stalwart contributions.
So too does Birtwistle disciple and long-time friend, Elgar Howarth. Hes in magisterial charge of a superbly drilled and prepared London Philharmonic. In fact its in its consummate tapestry of interwoven themes and motifs, brimming with thrilling timbres, that the strengths of The Last Supper lie; whether one has to see it enacted, Im not sure.
- Remaining performances on 24 and 26 August (5.20 p.m.)
- Box Office: 01273 813813
- Read Colin Andersons review of The Last Supper
- Click here to read Nick Breckenfields general appraisal of Birtwistle
- Click here to read Steve Lomass review of the Classical Source/Deux-Elles CD of Birtwistles music
- Click here to read Colin Andersons Birtwistle interview in its extended version
- Duncan Hadfield examines connections between musical knights Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir John Tavener