Harrison Birtwistle
The Last Supper (words by Robin Blaser)

Jesus – William Dazeley
Ghost – Susan Bickley
Judas – Tom Randle
Simon – Geoffrey Moses
Andrew – Colin Judson
James – Andrew Watts
John – Andrew Rupp
Bartholomew – Christopher Lemmings
Philip – Adrian Powter
Thomas – Michael Hart-Davis
Matthew – Paul Reeves
James the Less – Stephen Wallace
Jude – Simon Kirkbride
Simon the Canaan – Hilton Marlton

London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Elgar Howarth

Director – Martin Duncan
Designer – Alison Chitty
Sound design – Ian Dearden
Sound engineering - SOUNDintermedia
Ever since its foundation back in the 1930s, Glyndebourne has been a forward-thinking opera house, eager and willing to present new works, especially by native composers, alongside popular fare. Benjamin Britten was commissioned to compose his second and third operas, The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring. That tradition continues when it comes to the stage works of Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Glyndebourne gave the premiere of Birtwistle’s previous opera, The Second Mrs Kong; now, following on from its introduction to Glyndebourne Touring Opera last autumn, The Last Supper receives a timely run of performances as part of the summer festival programme.
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 it’s curious that no commentator has pointed out the work’s affinity to Elgar’s 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. There’s little to engage ongoing visual attention in Alison Chitty’s monochrome, wall- with-a-door-in-it set; somewhat (again deliberately?) drab, contemporary casual wear costumes all thirteen men; choreographer Sean Walsh’s 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 Blaser’s 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 Christ’s 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 Birtwistle’s word-setting is so clotted, dense and atonal that we can’t 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. Glyndebourne’s 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 Dazeley’s rich baritone as Jesus and Tom Randle’s 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. He’s in magisterial charge of a superbly drilled and prepared London Philharmonic. In fact it’s 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, I’m not sure.

 

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