The Aldeburgh Festival launches its 62nd season with the opening of its swanky new Britten Studio, a perfect setting for Harrison Birtwistle’s new chamber theatre pieces. It’s a fine way to inaugurate the new building and mark the composer’s 75th year.
The Corridor, like a late Samuel Beckett playlet, encapsulates a moment of human experience in a potent slice of stage poetry, combining text, imagery and the majesty of Birtwistle’s mature style. Here the fragment of time is the moment when Orpheus turns back to look at his lost wife. The elliptical poem by David Harsent, as worthy of study in itself as last year’s The Minotaur, stings like a snake on the heel.
As with Beckett’s Footfalls, a woman operates within the confines of a strip of light, a corridor of the mind, but with the difference that here she can step out of the contained space and comment on the action. At these points, the textures resemble an earlier Harsent-Birtwistle collaboration, The Woman and the Hare, and soprano Elizabeth Atherton handles the spoken text particularly well.
Birtwistle tells us that the opera (described as “a scena for soprano, tenor and six instruments”) evolved from an image of a woman in a corridor. Surprisingly, given the composer’s obsession with this particular Greek legend, it was only later she developed into Eurydice. Orpheus (an increasingly agitated but sweet-toned Mark Padmore) also stands outside the action (in the script, he’s “offstage”, although seen by the audience). The other protagonists are the musicians, six of the London Sinfonietta’s best, permanently on display. Cast as Five Shades, they are as much a physical element as the main duo, with moments of direct interaction with the soprano.
In a pre-concert talk, Birtwistle said in another life he’d want to spend all his time working on chamber theatre on this scale. Hopefully, there’s enough time in this one for him to explore the form further. The Corridor is doubled with Semper Dowland, semper dolens, six songs and Birtwistle’s barely-discernible realisations of a set of subtly varying pavanes by the Elizabethan John Dowland.
With expressive choreography by Rachel Lopez de la Nieta, it’s a meditation on melancholy, which benefits enormously from the luxury teamwork of director Peter Gill and designer Alison Chitty. Attendees will find their own echoes between the two works, with Padmore’s anguished song accompanied by harp alone in both and the theme of love and loss running through the entire evening.
The second day of the festival opened with a concert in Aldeburgh Church which saw Birtwistle himself conduct his songs on texts by Paul Celan (the original three White and Light, Tenebrae and Night – plus With Letter and Clock). These exquisite settings benefit from being presented alone, the extended version (nine songs and nine movements for quartet) that make up Pulse Shadows too vast and indigestible for even some hardline fans of the composer. The excellent Claire Booth sang them with a concentrated eye flitting continually between score and conductor.
The Aubades and Nocturnes, instrumental interludes from The Io Passion, on the contrary, could have done with some theatrical context, proving a little too sparse and austere as stand-alones. It’s high time this theatre piece was revived in full. It was good to hear the solo harp work Crowd performed for a second time in a fortnight, here played with great beauty and expression by Lucy Wakeford. The London Sinfonietta, such great champions of this repertoire, excelled once more in a delightfully balanced programme which included Britten’s Suite for Harp and a flowing Introduction and Allegro by Ravel.
There are three further performances of The Corridor/Semper Dowland at Snape, before the double bill arrives in London (Queen Elizabeth Hall, 6-7 July). Birtwistle is represented in a number of other concerts over the festival fortnight. Full details at aldeburgh.co.uk