Birtwistle's The Corridor/The Cure at Aldeburgh

Helen Wallace reports on a thought-provoking new opera double-bill

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Birtwistle's The Corridor/The Cure at Aldeburgh
Elizabeth Atherton as Medea in Birtwistle's The Cure (c) Clive Bardal, ArenaPAL
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Aldeburgh 2015: a stiff north-sea breeze, gulls wheeling and the scent of chip-fat on the High Street. Britten would still recognise his home town at bunting-fluttering Festival time, though he might find the wash of bugaboos, Boden, soya lattes, surf shops (yes, surf shops – with that shingle) and eye-watering house prices somewhat disconcerting. The transformation of Crabbe’s The Borough to Islington-on-sea is complete.

His festival, by contrast, has been nurtured with a vigilant eye on his vision. Of course, it, too, is shinier and more comfortable: he'd have loved the development of Snape Maltings, with its fine Britten Studio Theatre, and the informal intimacy of the Pumphouse, out in the fields behind Aldeburgh.

This year’s 68th edition, under the auspices of Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Roger Wright, passes the Britten test with flying colours: community involvement and young people (The Multi-story project in an Ipswich car park), Britten’s own Prince of the Pagodas, bracing programmes by internationally-acclaimed musicians (this, after all, is where Sviatoslav Richter, Mstislav Rostropovich and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau performed) and an innovative take on contemporary music.

The composer who wanted to study with Berg would be gratified to find his creation had not succumbed to the provincial or the populist. What might surprise him is the number of elderly people around. That we live in the Age of Gerontius is a commonplace, but it’s striking how recent the phenomenon is. Britten was only 63 when he died, of a now-treatable illness. Birtwistle, at 80, is in full creative flight. With this new lease of long lives, our whole attitude to longevity, and to death, is shifting.

In Birtwistle’s double-bill with David Harsent, The Corridor/The Cure, the concern is with death’s cold allure, the dragging pain of passing in and out of life. There’s a new element of choice: do we or do we not resuscitate? Both stories might be grasped from Greek myth, but their focus is very 21st century. The Corridor, premiered in 2009, is a drama of dazzling purity: a dynamic interrogation of the moment Orpheus looks back. While Eurydice (a commanding Elizabeth Atherton) looks coldly on her disinterment, challenging Orpheus to let her rest in peace, ‘my true language the soft/hints and gentle laughter of the dead’, Mark Padmore’s Orpheus exalts in an agony of grief, his indelible performance twined with harsh, hieratic harp. Five musicians from the London Sinfonietta, under Geoffrey Paterson, proved an animated, articulate chorus, ‘dancing her down’ to hell.

In The Cure, by contrast, Atherton takes centre-stage as the sorceress Medea, persuaded to bring Jason’s father Aeson back from the brink of death. Here, Birtwistle returns to his world of ritual, as Medea works her three-part magic, with herbs, minerals and her own blood. Padmore’s switch from virile Jason to dessicated, croaking Aeson, and the latter’s gradual re-embodiment, is a theatrical coup.

Martin Duncan and Alison Chitty’s lucid production sticks to essentials, sealing her in a fluorescent circle where she is ultimately confounded: Aeson does not thank her for the chance to live, and die, again. Suddenly I realise what The Cure calls to mind: Britten’s late, stark masterpiece, Phaedra. A woman, consumed by her own power, crying out in the dark; percussive pizzicato and dry harpsichord pattering around Janet Baker’s voluptuous arioso. Two great dramatists achieving, with age, a winnowed directness of expression. An Aldeburgh tradition lives on.

Aldeburgh Festival continues until the 28 June; The Corridor/The Cure are at the Linbury Studio Theatre, London until 27 June

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  • Article Type: | Blog |
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