First published in the Guardian on 15 January, 2017
The Last Supper is Harrison Birtwistle’s intense and mysterious ‘dramatic tableau’ — an opera, but more static and more stylised — with a libretto by the late Canadian poet Robin Blaser. It premiered in 2000 and was specifically a millennium piece: it deals with time, the weight we put on single moments (the striking of midnight, the Crucifixion), how we rework those moments in hindsight, how we replay old stories with horrible inevitability and reenact rituals we would rather escape. Hearing the work in 2017, its depiction of historical amnesia and collective entrapment felt starkly relevant.
This is not easy entertainment by anyone’s standards. Birtwistle himself has called it “a tough grub”, and though we all know the story, broadly speaking, the detailed implications are obscure. Time telescopes across two millennia but for two hours nothing much happens. The premise is that Ghost — Greek chorus, conscience of the audience, sung with superb conviction by Susan Bickley — invites the disciples to reconvene for another Last Supper. The men trickle in, greet each other, chat about what they’ve been up to for the past 2000 years. Judas turns up against the odds and the others shun him; I was deeply moved by Daniel Norman’s diffident and remorseful portrayal. Then Jesus arrives, a tremendously noble and resonant performance from Roderick Williams, and begins to play out Passover events.
I’m not sure whether the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s concert staging eased or intensified the theatrical enigma. I appreciated the disciples’ everyman costumes (wellies, aprons) but missed real physicality from them: there was a meek shot at dancing, a tepid reaction to Judas’s arrival. The most striking visual moment was when they froze into the positions of Da Vinci’s mural The Last Supper, as though acknowledging the centuries of artistic responses to themselves, as though trapped by their own typecasting.
More problematic than lack of staging was balance: with the exception of Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts’s boomingly ardent Thomas, all of the disciples’ text was drowned out by the orchestra. There were no surtitles, either, meaning Blaser’s very human touches of dialogue were lost. This shouldn’t be an issue when the performance is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on January 28 as the balance can be tweaked.
What we got instead of words was grippingly vivid instrumental drama. Birtwistle’s ritualistic writing is marvellous, layer upon layer of skewed time and perspective underpinned by a grim, grand pace unfolding from the bottom of orchestra. The sound palette is dense and dark and strange with contrabass clarinet, tolling timpani and no violins, and Birtwistle fills the surface with sudden swooshes of dynamism and odd colours. A sombre accordion accompanies the recitatives; a high-hat whispers a sleazy riff straight out of a noire flick. Martyn Brabbins conducted with a superb knack for elasticity — the orchestra clinched the yo-yoyoing between sudden movement and sudden stasis, and the intensity never dropped. Perhaps most compelling of all were the crystalline Latin motets that punctuate the opera, delivered by the BBC Singers with poise and control — crucial salves amid the fracas.