Now nearly twenty-five years since its completion at time of writing, and nearly fifteen years since this seminal release appeared and was given the Gramophone magazine award for Best Contemporary Recording, it seems like as good a moment as any to have another look at Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Mask of Orpheus. My original reason for reviewing the recording was to accompany a look at Jonathan Cross’s new study on the opera, but this is a work which will always deserve to remain somewhere high on our list of all-time masterpieces.
Some of Harrison Birtwistle’s own thoughts on this piece are interestingly if somewhat aphoristically outlined on a special website
, in which fragments and illustrations from Peter Zinovieff’s huge libretto are also quoted and reproduced. There is also a chunky CD booklet sized edition of the libretto available which to the uninitiated, among whose number I count myself, is impenetrable enough without having to decipher tiny print. My aim here is not to examine and analyse the intricacies of the work, but to see how it stands up now we’re well into the 21st
century, and give a glimpse at what remains a fine performance of a remarkable opera.
By way of an introduction, the libretto works around several permutations of the Orpheus myth, often placing concepts and events simultaneously. This libretto as a visual document is rich in graphics and illustrations like that used for the cover of the CD, and the textual elements in it are heavy with descriptions and stage directions – the relatively few performed words are enacted on stage by the characters in the role of singer or puppet, and events are also expressed in mime. The booklet which accompanies the CDs has a useful narrative version of the action prepared by Peter Zinovieff. This is relatively concise but still cover four pages of small print. In some ways, Orpheus is comparable with Punch and Judy in the sense of it being strongly grounded in dramatic ritual. The feel of the two operas is different however, the chamber music intensity of Punch and Judy having been put aside for a conception of grander scale and scope. As well as the action performed by the singers there is also a troupe of mimes, whose six intermezzos are accompanied by electronic music. With the lack of this visual element on a CD edition this is an unavoidable missing link with the full staged experience, but is less of a problem as you might imagine. For those looking to explore Birtwistle for the first time, or to extend a passing acquaintance, The Mask of Orpheus is in fact one of his more approachable scores. Newcomers might be put off by the intimidating intellectual complexity of it all, and the grand scale and duration of the piece as a whole, but in my opinion this is a much easier ride than Punch and Judy.
Looking at the electronics in this piece, it is easy to forget now how things were in the mid 1980s. The effects heard here were realised by Barry Anderson in association with the then centre and forefront of electronic music experiment and technology, IRCAM, housed underground near the Pompidou centre in Paris. This was one of the few places to go if you wanted to thrill audiences with new sounds, and hair-raisingly spectacular works by Boulez and movingly beautiful pieces like ‘Mortuos Plango, Vivo Vocus’ by Jonathan Harvey were all generated here. For a long time now we’ve been able to recreate some of the effects here in the comfort of our own homes. Buy yourself a Roland keyboard, find the ‘Agogo’ setting, and you’ll discover you can imitate big swathes of Orpheus with the help of some added resonance and a bit of filtering. The best we had at the Royal Academy of Music at the time was the much vaunted Yamaha DX7, whose distinctive sonics characterise innumerable cheesy film soundtracks of the period. The effects on Orpheus are by no means cheesy, though some elements in the work might remind some listeners of more or less familiar cinematic sci-fi fantasies. The roaring voices with emerge or rear up from within vast textures can still be pretty scary, and the atmosphere in many sections is given a remote timelessness through underlying layers of sound which are a kind of sonic equivalent of dry ice. The mime sections are of course bereft of their visual element, but the electronics provide plenty of food for the imagination and I didn’t find them outstaying their welcome. These are all well integrated and essential parts of the score which define a strong aspect of the impact of the work as a whole.
I used the word ‘approachable’ before, but such terms are of course relative, and I did mean this in relation to Birtwistle’s own output, and to contemporary music and opera in general. What you won’t find here is an opera which gives willingly of its enigmatic aura. I won’t say it is full of hard to crack secrets, since only a little extra effort on the part of the listener will reveal plenty of clues as to what is going on; something this work shares with most opera. If however you are listening with no additional information and none of the visual clues of the live staging you probably won’t have much of an idea as to what is going on at the beginning, and we all know how hard it is to catch up once initial confusion has set in. Some background knowledge of the Orpheus myth will be enough to be able to relate names and some of the rather fragmentarily related events to relevant textual and narrative signposts. What does happen is that the ear is tempted from the outset, drawn in by quiet and mysterious sounds, by voices delivering texts both fragmented and straight in delivery, by the psychological fascination we have with - aside from some perceptible distress in the characters - an as yet unopened box of emotions. The first flowering of a genuine musical event is at the First Act of Love/First Duet of Love, a restrained vocal section which promises lyrical beauty, but which is all too soon cut off by the electronics which accompany the first Mime section. These are given the name of Passing Clouds, for which members of a certain generation may have different associations. In this way we are given a sense of the scale and well proportioned pacing of the piece within the first fifteen or twenty minutes – slow moving arcs, slow moving music, messages spoken and sung with eloquently expressive lyricism over a feel of latent earthquakes in readiness for high drama.
Drama there is of course. The First Ceremony introduces the harder edge of uncompromising ritual as the lovers Orpheus and Euridice are questioned, and the results give rise to predictably bad omens. The ritualistic elements in the opera do give rise to a certain amount of repetition. Beginning with a slightly out of place sounding electric bass guitar, disc two/Act 2 is largely taken up with Orpheus making his way across the aqueduct which bridges the river Styx, each of its 17 arches symbolic and rich in meaning. Some might have hoped that he would move across a little quicker, but this is in many ways a central axis around which the rest of the opera revolves, and the only real reason for impatience is the mere fact of knowing how far we have to travel before we’ve completed the traverse. This act is filled with desperate drama and extremes of contrast and in many ways the most conventionally operatic, with the chorus representing crowds, the hero Orpheus meeting and dealing with horrendous challenges, and an ending which is inevitably tragic: the First Terrible Death. This is the closest I’ve ever come to having to hide behind the sofa with an opera, and there is plenty here to send chills down the spines of even the least faint-hearted of listeners.
With CD3/Act 3 we are given a structure ‘based upon the movement of the tide on a beach.’ Nine episodes from Orpheus’s mythological stories are dealt with, using the device of ‘time distortion’ to carry us beyond chronological sequence and allowing the opera to explore and fold back over events already seen , presented from different perspectives. It isn’t really possible here to cover every aspect of the ways in which the opera hangs together, but there are numerous little touches which provide points of recognition. The orchestration, as with Stravinsky’s ‘Symphony of Psalms’, goes without strings. Orpheus has an entirely different sonority of course, but instruments are often used within expected roles: brass and percussion with a frequently combative or ritualistic function, woodwinds sometimes interjecting like a wordless choir or creating shifting chorales and textures, taking the place of strings but with a sharper edge and better defined sonorities. The harp provides an occasional sense of antiquity, but is understated and contributes infrequently. There are moments where a piece such as Louis Andriessen’s 1981 ‘De Tijd’ might spring to mind – with long periods turning around restricted tonal centres, and that bass guitar certainly seems as if shipped in straight from The Netherlands. Musically, the underlying atmosphere of electronics holds everything together very strongly, and there are recurring motivic figures which also guide the listener, punctuating and introducing scenes and events. As you might expect with an opera about the most famous of ancient and mythological singers, the vocal elements in this work are of the utmost importance. While there is little which might be pointed out as being song-like, there are many moments of exquisite lyrical beauty. Birtwistle doesn’t do in for parts which work against the nature of either instruments or voice, and the sense of natural dramatic flow and vocal strength is something you take away from the experience as a whole.
In some ways, The Mask of Orpheus is a work of its time. As Jonathan Cross points out in the booklet notes, the 1980s seemed to be the right moment for a new wave of grand opera. Messiaen’s Saint François d’ Assise, much of Stockhausen’s vast Licht cycle, John Adams’ Nixon in China, the first appearance of Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and Akhnaten all hail from this period, as well as smaller scale but perhaps equally influential works like Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Even my little corner of Europe was fertile ground, with productivity from teachers in The Hague at the time including Konrad Boehmer’s Doktor Faustus, and Walter Zimmermann’s Die Blinden, and Hyperion. The 1980s do seem a long time ago now, but, while not entirely timeless in terms of its creative context The Mask of Orpheus does transcend its origins as part of such a wealthy hotbed of operatic production. This opera generates a powerfully expressive and monumentally compelling statement which is as stunningly startling today as when it first appeared. As an opera it is like no other, reflecting Birtwistle’s own desire to “invent a formalism which does not rely on tradition... to create a world that was utterly new.” No self-respecting collection of modern vocal music should be without this definitive and superlative performance and recording.