Almeida Opera – The Io Passion

The Io Passion [London Premiere]

Woman 1 – Teresa Banham (actor)
Woman 2 – Claire Booth (soprano)
Woman 3 – Amy Freston (soprano)
Man 1 – Sam McElroy (baritone)
Man 2 – Joseph Alessi (actor)
Man 3 – Richard Morris (baritone)

Quatour Diotima [Eiichi Chijiiwa & Nicolas Miribel (violins); Franck Chevalier (viola) & Pierre Morlet (cello)]
Alan Hacker (clarinet/director)

Stephen Langridge – director
Alison Chitty – designer
Paul Pyant – lighting designer
Sound Intermedia

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 July, 2004
Venue: Almeida Theatre, London

No two of Harrison Birtwistle’s theatre pieces are alike. Then again, all share recurrent themes or procedures – most often of a mythical derivation. This undeniably fruitful paradox holds good for his latest stage-work: The Io Passion, recently premiered at Aldeburgh and receiving here its first London showing.

The legend of Io – shepherdess-daughter of Inachus, seduced by Zeus in the guise of a bull, and turned by him into a white heifer as a present for his suspecting wife Hera; only to be stung, on command of the jealous Hera, by a gadfly to the ends of the earth – is rich in symmetries and parallels, of a kind Birtwistle has exploited effectively in earlier music-dramas. Here, however, there is no recourse to alternative narratives, rather the salient events are overlaid onto a more fundamental scenario: a Man and a Woman, their perpetual non-meeting, their communication only by letter, and the source of their estrangement in an encounter – as likely to be psychological as sexual – in ‘Lerna’.

From this unlikely amalgam, Birtwistle and his librettist Stephen Plaice have fashioned a drama in seven continuous ‘fits’ (that is, a part or section of a longer poem or song), lasting around 95 minutes. Each of the two roles is undertaken by three performers – an actor and two singers – who move between the two temporal layers with increasing fluidity: the interaction of these realities being the sum and purpose of the narrative. The intensity of this interaction, moreover, ranges from the dumb-play of the Man and Woman in Fit 1 ‘The House’ to the rude – in all senses – intervention of the myth in Fit 6 ‘Pantomime’. Underlying all of these events, however, is the sequence of actions by the two protagonists seen at the outset – its four full recurrences separated by two half recurrences.

The outcome has an overall coherence even Birtwistle has not previously equalled. Essential to this is the instrumentation – scored for just clarinet and string quartet, and moving effortlessly between those familiar Birtwistlean poles of elegiac introspection and rhythmic angularity. The dramatic superimposing is not always so convincing. That of Fit 5 ‘Quartet’, in which the ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ of the Woman’s dream appear to articulate her inner predicament, is a masterstroke of psychological drama; yet the ‘Pantomime’, ostensibly a crude burlesque, has a forced humour all too redolent of Ken Russell in his heyday. Plaice does not always help matters: admirably terse and functional as his text is for the most part, his forays into pantomime are awkward and self-conscious – a far cry from those Stephen Pruslin and Michael Nyman provided for Birtwistle in his 1960s’ theatre-pieces.

Such reservations need to be seen in the context of an undeniably engrossing whole. The triple cast is a strong one – notably Claire Booth and Richard Morris in the main sung roles, and with actors Teresa Banham and Joseph Alessi convincingly absorbed into a set-up in which the constituent Man and Woman interchange with uncanny similarity. The Quatour Diotima, a collective ‘rising star’ in the quartet firmament, plays with scrupulous regard for the many timbral shadings and variations in attack, and how good to see Alan Hacker accorded prominence in a work by a composer with whom he has long been associated. Stephan Langridge’s direction makes persuasive use of Alison Chitty’s design – with external events precisely mirrored by those ‘on the inside’ – and the subtle electronic component is conveyed by Sound Intermedia with due understatement. It adds up to a memorable evening’s theatre, whose possibilities Birtwistle will no doubt develop in his future dramatic work.

  • Further performances of The Io Passion on July 9 & 10
  • Almeida Opera runs until 18 July
  • Almeida Opera
  • Box Office: 020 7359 4404

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