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The Cure

Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who turned eighty last year, has just produced his latest opera, The Cure, which opened at the Aldeburgh Festival on June 12 and almost immediately came to London for a run at the 400-seat Linbury Studio Theatre, situated beneath the main auditorium at the Royal Opera House (June 18). 

Designed from the outset as a companion-piece to his earlier chamber opera The Corridor (2009), The Cure is scored for identical forces: just two singers (soprano and tenor), plus an ensemble of six players comprising various sorts of flute and clarinet, as well as violin, viola, cello and harp — here skillfully performed by members of the London Sinfonietta under the adept baton of conductor Geoffrey Paterson. Both works last in the region of 45-50 minutes.  

Since his earliest days as a composer — which now stretch back more than fifty  years — Birtwistle has shown an ongoing fascination with Greek myth, and especially and repeatedly that of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has motivated numerous pieces, including his largest score The Mask of Orpheus, which had its premiere at English National Opera in 1986.  

The Cure, however, is not an Orphic piece, though it does reference Greek myth. Medea has helped Jason to steal the famous Golden Fleece, and they leave Colchis together. But Jason discovers that his aged father Aeson is ailing, and asks a further favor from Medea, who is endowed with magical powers: he wants her to give back to his father ten years of life, taken from Jason himself. In fact, Medea is able to revivify Aeson without taking any time away from Jason — though the results of her intervention are both surprising and disturbing. As with The Corridor, as well as the full-scale operas Gawain (1990) and The Minotaur (2008), Birtwistle’s librettist for the new work is the poet David Harsent. 

Alison Chitty designed both works, and direction was by Martin Duncan, whose staging was straightforward in intention and clear in execution. Notable was the doubling back-and-forth between the characters of the young Jason and the aged Aeson allotted to tenor Mark Padmore; his appearance as Jason’s grey-haired father involved him rising from a hole in the ground up to his waist, like someone literally coming back from the dead, with the quick-change aspect of this stage maneuver being cleverly handled.

Soprano Elizabeth Atherton, meanwhile, presented Medea as a flamboyant personification of a Mediterranean witch, her colorful costumes contrasting vividly with the grayness of Aeson and the everyday business-like manner of Jason. 

Both well known for their interpretations of contemporary music, neither Atherton nor Padmore had any difficulty with Birtwistle’s dense and unashamedly modernist idiom; their lines were invariably presented cleanly and with sharp edges. Padmore’s lithe and textured tenor proved a major asset both in The Cure and in The Corridor (played first), where he and Atherton’s lyrical Eurydice explored at length the moment in the legend when Orpheus tries to draw his reluctant wife back to the world of the living from that of the dead, only to ultimately fail. 

In both works, the unique sound-world of an artistic figure many regard as the U.K.’s greatest living composer once again left its indelible mark, suggesting an alien world peopled by isolated and fragmented individuals, however familiar their ancient names may still be.  —George Hall

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