Music: The Mask of Orpheus/ Birtwistle Royal Festival Hall, London

Click to follow
The drive to demonise Harrison Birtwistle in certain quarters of the conservative press doesn't seem to have abated yet. But despite the best efforts of musical Middle England, there obviously remains a hard core of people who won't be told. Friday's opening concert in the South Bank Birtwistle retrospective, Secret Theatres - a complete performance of the opera The Mask of Orpheus - attracted a near-capacity audience to the Royal Festival Hall. There were no protest gestures, no visible walk-outs, and plenty of cheering at the end.

Stephen Langridge's production had a lot of problems to overcome, not least the fact that Birtwistle's huge wind and percussion orchestra took up a large part of the Festival Hall stage area. But the deft transformation of the choir stalls into a second stage, the economical but effective props, surtitles indicating the nature of the scenes, and most of all the superb mime and dance contributions ensured even more dramatic and sheer visual impact than at the English National Opera's full-stage version 10 years ago.

Inevitably, perspectives have changed since that first production. Peter Zinovieff's over-artful libretto hasn't aged well; but the music has. Paradoxically the electronics sound less dated now than they did in 1986. And the BBC Symphony Orchestra's playing, authoritatively co-directed by Andrew Davis and Martyn Brabbins, allowed us to hear much more detail - colours, textural intricacies, and especially the subtle rhythmic processes that power the movement. The astonishing Act 2 - Orpheus's doomed attempt to rescue Euridice from Hades - delivered the same elemental punch it did in 1986; how many other composers can sustain a dramatic crescendo for nearly 45 minutes? But this performance told us far more about the steely beauty of Birtwistle's writing - is there anything finer in his whole output?

There didn't appear to be one weak link in the cast of soloists. Marie Angel stood out as The Oracle of the Dead and Hecate - two wonderful examples of the Birtwistlian deranged coloratura; but so did Jon Garrison as Orpheus the Man (as opposed to Orpheus the Myth), yelling and spitting out consonants and vowels as he learns speech from Apollo - the Birth of Language doesn't seem to have been an easy labour. While Birtwistle avoids bel canto, or anything approaching what a Daily Telegraph reader would call a "tune", there is often a weird lyrical beauty in the voice-writing, physically demanding maybe, but well conveyed throughout this performance, especially by Jean Rigby and Anne-Marie Owens as Euridice, Woman and Myth.

Parts of the action and text still perplex 10 years on. The synopsis of Act 3 in particular reads rather like the notes in Robert Graves's Greek Myths, where different versions of the same story sit tantalisingly side by side. And why, at key moments, does Orpheus repeat the line "The King stands high..."? Some of the symbolism to do with the 17 arches in Act 2 is mystifying, though does add to the potent, nightmarish atmosphere - need one demand more? But as this magnificent performance showed, the music can carry just about everything. There really is nothing like The Mask of Orpheus anywhere in opera. Getting to know it better is an appetising prospect. Let's hope we do not have to wait another 10 years for the opportunity to hear it again.