For those who attended one of the half dozen staged performances at English National Opera in 1986, The Mask of Orpheus was an unforgettable event. The sheer power and expressiveness of the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s prom of the work’s second act, under joint conductors Martyn Brabbins and Ryan Wigglesworth, came a close second.
A decade after the premiere, the same orchestra gave a semi-staged performance of the work, which was to form the basis of the currently available CD set, but we’ve had to wait until now to hear any of this magnificent score performed live again.
There was little wrong with the BBC SO string section’s playing of Stravinsky’s neo-classical Apollo and Johnny Greenwood’s neo-bland Popcorn Superhet Receiver, which constituted the first half of the evening, but it’s a crying shame the programmers didn’t have the courage of their convictions and let us hear Birtwistle’s opera complete. What a missed opportunity.
Act 2 of The Mask of Orpheus is the most linear of the three, with Orpheus journeying through 17 imaginary arches into and out of the underworld. Not that you’d necessarily know it from Peter Zinovieff’s dense and far from straightforward libretto, even more apparent with the printed text provided (missing from the otherwise well-documented recording).
The opera contains six interludes of IRCAM-developed electronic music, a rare foray by the composer into the genre. Only one of these appears in the second act, right at the end, although there’s more of Barry Anderson’s superb work in the voice of Apollo, which punctuates the transition between arches and in the barely-distinguishable background “aura” which, in Act 2, represents Winter. What a treat to hear this eerie creation played at ear-splitting levels in the Albert Hall.
In an opera dominated by the orchestral content, the contributions of the vocalists was immaculately-realised by a great line-up of artists. The splendid Alan Oke was the main Orpheus (each character has three incarnations), with the luxury of Christine Rice as Euridice (Woman), doubled here by an excellent Anna Stephany as her myth self, and the wonderfully hysterical Claron McFadden, a shrieking Hecate, reminiscent on her high perch of Punch and Judy’s Pretty Polly.
Much as I love it, over-earnestness, veering at times towards the portentous, pervades Birtwistle’s work and it came to the fore in some of the more theatrical flourishes of Tim Hopkins’ otherwise apt and inventive semi-staging. The waggling of small mirrors by members of the orchestra and their later slip into self-conscious unconsciousness stayed only just the right side of silly but these were minor blemishes on a truly thrilling evening of great music drama.