The Last Supper, BBCSSO, Brabbins, City Halls, Glasgow | reviews, news & interviews
The Last Supper, BBCSSO, Brabbins, City Halls, Glasgow
The Last Supper, BBCSSO, Brabbins, City Halls, Glasgow
A thrilling renaissance for Birtwistle's ritualistic religious opera
You can tell it’s a big deal when even a handful of London critics abandon the capital for a Saturday evening in chilly Glasgow. And there were more besides in the capacity crowd for Birtwistle’s opera The Last Supper, given a semi-staged performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – seemingly anyone who’s anyone in Scottish music, from international composers to conductors and orchestra heads, and way beyond too. A big deal it most definitely was – and, miraculously, a free ticket too, since it was essentially a radio recording for a BBC Radio 3 broadcast (scheduled for 28 January) that ended up as one of the country’s hottest tickets in January.
The Last Supper has rarely been performed since it was unveiled at the Berlin State Opera in 2000, followed by a Glyndebourne tour the same year. And there’s more than a whiff of millennial angst to its storyline, in which Jesus reunites his disciples to mull over whether Christianity has really helped the world in the last 2,000 years. If anything, though, what was already pertinent at its debut feels even more urgent in 2017 – the opera’s chilling list of atrocities committed in the name of religion can only be extended since its premiere.
And as with much of Birtwistle’s output, on both the opera and concert hall stages, The Last Supper feels heavily immersed in ritual. That’s an aspect that Birtwistle himself questions in an illuminating interview put together for the BBCSSO web site, but it’s undeniably there in the opera’s strongly defined structure, which feels at times almost like a church service, and most of all in its strange, contemplative storyline.
The Ghost, representing humankind, summons together the 12 disciplines, and ultimately Christ himself, for a re-run of the Last Supper, whose purpose, they work out, is to catch up on their achievements since they last met two millennia back, and more importantly to assess where Christianity has got us. Judas gets to justify his betrayal, and Christ halts proceedings for three mysterious visions – of the Crucifixion, the Stations of the Cross, and finally the betrayal itself, which seems about to repeat itself at the opera’s closing cock crow.
Birtwistle’s music feels tremendously lyrical, even opulent 17 years after the opera’s premiere. It’s quite often blunt and uncompromising, but the Latin choral motets that accompany Christ’s three visions summon remarkable poise and focus in his choral writing, and his lengthy foot-washing scene, in which Christ humbles himself before each of his disciples in turn, has an astonishing sense of pathos even amid its wailing orchestration that’s only increased by its inexorable repetitions.
Conductor Martyn Brabbins was the driving force behind the project, and he showed extraordinary insights into Birtwistle’s often thick scoring, never losing sight of its density and depth, but sculpting its layers with strong definition, and ensuring an involving dramatic flow alongside the opera’s more ritualistic unfolding. The violin-less orchestra was on remarkable, committed form, too, especially its often growling brass and intermittently shrieking woodwind, with James Crabb providing a distinctive twang on accordion in what’s traditionally the leader’s seat.
Brabbins had an extremely fine cast for his account, too – and an oddly shaped one, with just one woman joining the 13 men singing the disciples and Messiah. Susan Bickley (pictured above) is a Birtwistle veteran, and she was superbly nuanced singing the Ghost, especially in her lengthy opening scene-setting aria. Roderick Williams was commanding as Christ, full of charisma yet controlled and restrained, his remarkable voice savouring every word of Robin Blaser’s libretto and delivering them with finely judged expression. With his widely vibrating voice and not always clear enunciation, tenor Daniel Norman (pictured below) seemed rather the odd one out as Judas, despite a deeply affecting performance – but Marcus Farnsworth as a concerned Philip and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as a petulant Thomas (still with his doubts 2000 years later) stood out among the disciples.
And in many ways, director Victoria Newlyn’s minimalist staging gave the opera just the setting it needed. There was all the honest directness of a concert performance – with singers performing scores in hand, movement and gesture kept to a minimum – but she had the measure of Birtwistle’s big structures and his slowly unfolding repetitions. It would almost certainly have benefitted from supertitles to make Birtwistle’s word-setting ringingly clear, but there was almost a hypnotic quality to the production at times, and what felt like quite a moving sense of sincerity in making it very much a show for our own times. Yes, it was indeed a big deal, an ambitious project that showcased the skills and commitment of the BBCSSO – and judging by The Last Supper’s downright popularity with a Glasgow Saturday night crowd, one we should see more of in future seasons.
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