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Twentieth-century blues

Glyndebourne Festival Theatre
08/04/2001 -  and 7, 11, 17, 24, 26 August
Harrison Birtwistle: The last supper
William Dazeley (Jesus), Susan Bickley (Ghost), Tom Randle (Judas), Geoffrey Moses (Simon), Colin Judson (Andrew), Andrew Watts (James), Andrew Rupp (John), Christopher Lemmings (Bartholomew), Andrew Powter (Philip), Michael Hart-Davis (Thomas), Paul Reeves (Matthew), Stephen Wallace (James the Less), Simon Kirkbride (Jude), Hilton Marlton (Simon Canaan)

Elgar Howarth (conductor), Martin Duncan (director)

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Harrison Birtwistle's Last supper is in its first season at the Glyndebourne Festival, with the cast who performed in last season's tour. The resulting performance is coherent, entertaining and at times overwhelming, and the Glyndebourne audience loved it, even on a very soggy Tuesday when the supper interval (after the opera) wasn't going to be much fun. This is truly amazing when the opera itself is a serious, at times portentous, reflection within a new-ageish but broadly Christian framework on the pain and cruelty humans have inflicted on each other in the name of Christianity since the time of Jesus. Moreover, the libretto, by American poet Robin Blaser, lifts some great, pregnant lines from other poets and writers, but includes some excruciating original words, which one reviewer described as sounding as if they were translated badly from another language and which made another think more kindly of Michael Tippett's. Even the Latin segments come over as pretentious gibberish on their own.

Birtwistle's music also seems unlikely in the abstract to gratify an audience who traditionally like Mozart and maybe a bit of Verdi. Of course Glyndebourne's outstanding tradition of commissioning new works has got them used to almost anything, especially when the casts productions are stellar. And the gardens are always there if you really can't bear to go back after the supper interval. But Birtwistle is especially interested in music as ritual, and the last supper of the gospels is the narrative archetype of one of the great rituals, the Christian sacrificial meal. His music works out the violence that underlies the bonds of communities, in the strength of feeling within them and the aggression or steadfastness against outsiders.

The action builds up not with the quasi-historical events of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, as in the Passion narratives, but with Ghost, a passionate but confused projection of human aspirations, summoning the apostles in twos and threes to ":Look through the zeros of the year 2000" (one of the few Blaser's few half-way plausible lines). They are characterized individually both musically and dramatically as they assemble: the toughness of the music avoids any risk of locker-room sentimentality, in spite of a general similarity between the libretto and Terence McNally's Corpus Christi. There is a certain amount of tension around Thomas, the sceptic, played with edgy charisma by Michael Hart-Davis. But the real question is whether Judas will show up. When he does, the loathing that the other apostles heap on him recalls, as he points out, the anti-Semitism that has shadowed Christianity for two thousand years. The point is well made, but its substance comes from the way the music provides a dramatic context for the gauche one-liner.

There is also a question as to whether Jesus will show up. When he does, he is definitely one of the apostles, sharing their emotions and communal bonds. William Dazeley as Jesus was allegedly utterly wet in the original production; now he is gentle, but unshaven and slightly crumpled, a plausible man of sorrows. The long-lined ritual as the others take their shoes off and he washes their feet is totally engrossing and close to heart breaking.
In parallel with the human interactions of the apostles and Ghost, who finally reveals herself and welcomed briefly to the group just before the tableau of the supper, there are three intermezzi that accompany more conventional depictions of scenes of the Passion, depicted with rather stunning animatronics that somehow avoid both sentiment and naffness. The intervals seem to be a homage to the Passion format, spaces for reflection between the narrated events.

The cast were a superb ensemble, both musically and dramatically. Susan Bickley, the only woman and the outsider Ghost, is dressed as a conventional diva-doing-a-recital, and her part is the most conventionally operatic. But along with singing with great bravura, she engages with the profound pain of the subject matter in a way that recalls her (musically very different) performance as Irene in the tour of Theodora in 1996. Tom Randle, in a role already highlighted by the dangers of Judas' history, was both realistic and mythical. It might be worth mentioning that it really isn't worth mentioning that the two counter-tenors were as good as the rest of the ensemble.

H.E. Elsom



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