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Harrison Birtwistle - The Mask of Orpheus

Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus
Birtwistle laboured from 1973 to 1984 on his “lyric tragedy”, The Mask of Orpheus, the key work of his first fifty years. Vast and unwieldy, the opera presents the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, not in its idealized Baroque version, but as a tale of unmitigated blood-and-guts tragedy. And it tells that tale over and over again, viewing it and reviewing it from every possible angle in 42 “trinities of action” (not only that, but, for good measure, each principal character is played by three different performers: a singer, a dancer and a mime). Musically, the opera is one of Birtwistle’s most uncompromising creations: a sequence of massive – and sometimes deafening –orchestral pile-ups (further bolstered by a substantial electronic score) out of which the vocal protagonists’ brief moments of fragile lyricism emerge all the more movingly. On paper this sounds impenetrable, and if performance does not make everything crystal clear, the sheer dramatic weight and physical presence of the score carries all before it.

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2x Garrison, Bronder, Rigby, Owens, Angel; BBC Singers and Symphony Orchestra; Davis (NMC D050; 3 CDs).

It was brave of NMC to issue this live recording of a piece that cries out for theatrical presentation to make sense of its convolutions. Excellent documentation casts light where it can, but in the end it’s the sheer commitment of all involved which convinces best.

SheetMusic by Birtwistle