Birtwistle: The Mask of Orpheus

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5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Birtwistle
WORKS: The Mask of Orpheus
PERFORMER: Jon Garrison, Jean Rigby, Alan Opie; BBC Singers, BBC SO/Andrew Davis, Martyn Brabbins
Harrison Birtwistle’s epic Mask of Orpheus is so large and complex that, masterpiece though many believe it to be, the work has not been seen in the theatre since its premiere performances at London’s English National Opera in 1986. The present recording is the fruit of a 1996 London semi-staged performance by BBC forces.


The opera’s many-layered structure reflects the fact that, as Jonathan Cross’s extremely helpful booklet note puts it, one ‘of the central concerns of the work is that of time itself: the exploration of a multiple present containing both past and future’. The Mask of Orpheus tells the story, or rather stories, of the Orpheus myth from different perspectives by extending the conventional operatic resources to include not only a singer, a mime and a giant singing puppet for each of the work’s main characters (Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus), but also the extensive, integrated and thrilling deployment of electronic music (realised by the late Barry Anderson).


As one juggles the four different ways of ‘following’ the work which NMC laudably makes available (including a version of Peter Zinovieff’s libretto), it’s easy to be frustrated by their obscurities and occasional discrepancies. Having gained ‘re-entry’ (I saw David Freeman’s original production three times), I found it most rewarding just to submit myself to the music’s frequently dynamic and sometimes movingly lyrical impact; paradoxically, the cumulatively complicated Act III seemed particularly impressive. A performance – though cut, as was the staged version – so faithful to the spirit of the music as well as to its challenging technical demands was long overdue; it will be invaluable for getting to know Birtwistle’s magnum opus.