The new-music community turned out in force to watch the sixty-eighth Aldeburgh Festival kick off with the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s scena for soprano, tenor and six instruments The Cure, in a double-bill under Martin Duncan’s direction with his earlier scena, The Corridor.
And as the composer and his librettist David Harsent pointed out in a pre-show talk, these short works were, if not cognate, certainly connected by their themes. In The Corridor Orpheus takes his fatal look back at Euridice; The Cure sees Medea revive the ageing Aeson with a herbal potion.
And with soprano Elizabeth Atherton and tenor Mark Padmore sharing the stage with soloists from the London Sinfonietta under Geoffrey Patterson’s direction in both works, that connexion became intimate.
This is a very Beckettian art-form, and Alison Chitty’s designs with Paul Pyant’s lighting conferred intense dramatic power on key moments, most notably Padmore’s spooky transformation from Jason into his father.
As always with this composer, the vocal lines are alternately lyrical and jagged, while the instrumental writing – at moments reminiscent of Japanese gagaku - is ornate and intricate, with the harp performing a percussive function.
The performances of Atherton and Padmore suggest estatic rituals, but the dramatic pulse of these works is weak, their cold cleverness failing to touch the heart.
*Harrison Birtwistle’s The Cure/The Corridor is at the Royal Opera House from 18 - 27 June
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