Harrison Birtwistle – The Last Supper (Glyndebourne)

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

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 4 August, 2001
Venue: Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Lewes, East Sussex

“Thirteen blokes sitting round a table is rather intriguing, don’t you think!” Sir Harrison Birtwistle responding to a question about the Last Supper’s suitability for staging. Well, Birtwistle is a man of the theatre; he and Robin Blaser have fashioned ’Dramatic Tableaux’, effectively Birtwistle’s sixth opera, that does indeed make for dramatic theatre.

With Classical Source’s recent involvement with Birtwistle, through a number of articles and reviews (see below), and not least in the recent collaboration with Deux-Elles for a CD of his wind-based chamber music, it was a natural corollary to attend the first night of Glyndebourne’s staging. Having interviewed the composer for the afore-mentioned CD’s booklet (a longer version is on this site), I was delighted to see an ebullient Sir Harry fore and aft the performance – “time to go home” he suggested as he strolled past an hour after curtain-down, mine and Duncan’s picnic consumed (Duncan’s review is also on this site); beforehand he had expressed delight at the staging about to be witnessed. With justification as it turns out; the designs are clean-cut, uncluttered, well lit and take one into the action; the action of a familiar story, its characters and their interaction.

At 110 minutes of continuous music, there are inevitably a few moments where momentum sags. Robin Blaser’s economical words also raise some doubts. Yet neither aspect seriously undermines what is an engrossing work – one that needs to be experienced live with full staging so one can focus on the psychology of it all.

The familiar story of the Last Supper is updated to year 2000 – the potential freezing to a specific time may be restrictive – with the disciples arriving in staggered entries through a ’time tunnel’. Judas is the last to arrive – will he come at all ask the other eleven – and when he does there is hostility to him. Jesus’s arrival is as sudden as it is unexpected.

The Ghost addresses the audience and represents us as contemporary onlookers to a story twenty-centuries-old. As such, the events are told as we have come to learn them; they are re-enacted as today; Jesus’s washing of the disciples’ feet effectively cleanses away 2000 years.

This isn’t a visual presentation of the original happening; the protagonists are reunited and reflect; the essentials of betrayal remain to be repeated or, this time, avoided.

The Ghost – having been contemporary witness, host to Jesus and ’The Twelve’, a link with them and us as our embodiment – joins the throng. She leaves with Jesus and the twelve disciples, Judas is accepted back into the fold – “… let us walk among the olive trees… ” – and, with it, a re-writing of history and reconciliation? Yet, the Ghost represents centuries of human weakness … the final sound is a cock crowing. The signal of betrayal? Nothing changes, two-thousand years have passed and it’s the same story. Or is it? As the composer said to me, “the thing about all good verse is that there is no true explanation of it.”

I was engrossed by the simplicity of the story and by the significance of this re-interpretation. Commissioned by Glyndebourne, Deutsche Staatsoper and the South Bank Centre, the premiere, in Berlin, was conducted by Daniel Barenboim in April 2000; it’s revival there by Philippe Jordan. Glyndebourne introduced it last year to its Autumn and Touring schedules, including a London performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, all under Elgar Howarth. Of the now well run-in cast, all excellent individually and collectively, special mention should be made of Susan Bickley, effectively on-stage throughout, William Dazeley and Tom Randle. New is the LPO. On this first night it played with exceptional assurance, which spoke of generous rehearsal time and the estimable presence of Elgar Howarth.

Musically, Birtwistle uses an orchestra without violins; added is an accordion, which makes a striking additional colour. Birtwistle’s invention is characteristically intense and atmospheric, and satisfyingly complex; there is also vitally rhythmic music for the dance episodes, and a refinement of texture and long, yielding lines that speak of Birtwistle exploring a different expression. The three ’a cappella’ motets that accompany (on tape) the three ’Visions’ – ’The Crucifixion’, ’The Stations of the Cross’ and ’The Betrayal’’ – constitute some of the most beautiful and richly harmonised music of recent times.

Ritual and ambiguity, the very stuff of Birtwistle – it all makes for great theatre; the airy, spacious yet intimate surroundings of Glyndebourne – its wood-dominated auditorium no doubt largely responsible for the excellent sound – is just the place to see it. Try and catch the remaining two performances.

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