Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus

Harrison Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus
English National Opera
The Coliseum, 29 October 2019

The world of ancient myths is a complex one, with many of the stories coming down to us in several different, and frequently conflicting, versions. One such is the Orpheus myth, the subject of four operas currently playing at the English National Opera’s Coliseum. After the sheer silliness of Emma Rice’s reconstruction of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (reviewed here) we had Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s monumental The Mask of Orpheus (with electronic music by Barry Anderson), the premier at the Coliseum in 1986 being its only full staging until now. Birtwistle’s approach is to tell several versions of the myth all at the same time in one of the most complex operas of modern time. As the ENO publicity explains, “Harrison Birtwistle’s iconic masterpiece retells the Orpheus myth in a non-linear narrative, as the opera’s leading characters appear in three distinct guises”. It “explores the contradictions in the various versions of the famous Greek tragedy, building a three-dimensional picture that leads us from inconsolable grief to acceptance and transformation”.

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ENO: Britten War Requiem

Britten: War Requiem
English National Opera
The Coliseum, 16 November 2018

English National Opera has a record of performing Benjamin Britten operas, as well as creating operas from the Bach Passions and other choral works, so it was no surprise that they would turn to Benjamin Britten’s famed War Requiem. As with the Bach Passions, when I first saw them staged, I was a little apprehensive as to what I was to see. Just how would they stage a work with such vastly contrasting moods and scenes, combining the heart-wrenching poems of Wilfred Owen and the words of a traditional Latin Requiem Mass? Britten himself accented this contrast by giving the two male soloists who sing the Owen poems their own chamber orchestra, to be positioned closest to the audience and with its own conductor. The Requiem settings are for a large chorus and orchestra and a soprano soloist, together with boys choir and accompanying organ which are to be situated some distance away from the main orchestras.

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