Harrison Birtwistle’s latest theatrical offering was premiered at the 62nd Aldeburgh Festival last month, in the splendid new Britten Studio at Snape. Designer Alison Chitty built a set – a gently concertinaed wall of wooden panelling and floor – which reflected the new building and enabled a taste of it to be experienced by attenders to the subsequent performances in London and Bregenz.
Chitty’s set sits elegantly in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, creating a vibrant atmosphere for Birtwistle’s pared-down drama which revisits the Orpheus legend he’s explored so many times before. It’s tempting to say he should move on and, like his main character, leave behind the past (not look back perhaps?) but he does, with The Corridor give us an exciting glimpse into the moment that Orpheus turns and so condemns his wife to a second death and himself a desolate future.
The climactic moment comes just a few minutes in and the remainder of the 50 minute work plays out the consequences of the act in an elliptical text by the poet David Harsent, who collaborated with the composer on large-scale operas Gawain and The Minotaur. It’s all very spare, just six instrumentalists (drawn from the London Sinfonietta) and two vocalists (Elizabeth Atherton and Mark Padmore, both excellent).
The performance has strengthened and sharpened since the Aldeburgh run, with a greater sense of urgency and drama. Padmore is more focused, his anguish perfectly capturing the sense of loss that can come from a single moment. Atherton, whose part is spoken as well as sung, is superb throughout, as are the LS players, an integral part of the action and cast as Five Shades (plus Helen Tunstall’s expressive harp which accompanies Padmore’s outpourings).
Like most of Birtwistle’s writing, it's demanding but compels attention, a dark and fractured example of the composer’s more lyrical late style. It’s a pocket-sized epic that captures the universe in a grain of sand.
The Corridor is accompanied by Semper Dowland, semper dolens, Birtwistle’s arrangement of six songs by John Dowland, interspersed with arrangements of a subtly varying set of pavanes by the 16th Century composer.
Some might question the inclusion of two dancers (Helka Kaski and Thom Rackett) but their languorous contribution does add echoes of melancholy, as do the projected images on a large screen that overlooks the action. The work of the creative team, led by the veteran theatre director Peter Gill, is subtle but stylish and allows Dowland’s ruminative sadness to dominate.
Both works are conducted by the charismatic Ryan Wigglesworth.
The double bill plays for a second performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 7 July and then travels to the Bregenz Festival at the end of the month.