Sir Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent’s operas breathe life into old stories with new perspectives.
Opera can sometimes be a gory feast: Strauss’s Salome kisses a severed head before being slain by Herod’s soldiers, Britten’s Peter Grimes drowns at sea after being chased by an angry mob, Tippett’s King Priam is murdered after his entire family has either abandoned him or perished, while Puccini’s Tosca leaps to her doom after her lover is shot by a firing squad. All that violence is usually the bloody result of a quest for love and liberty. Indeed, as Sir Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent’s latest chamber opera, The Cure, demonstrates, the moments we think will be our happiest often turn into our most tragic.
In The Cure, Jason and Medea have returned to Iolcos with the golden fleece so that Jason can finally reclaim his throne. But Jason’s father, Aeson, is on the verge of dying, and so Jason asks Medea the witch for yet another favor—as though killing her own brother to help Jason escape from Colchis hadn’t been enough. “I will give you children,” he says, “Give Aeson back his youth.” Not because Jason loves his father, but because he wants the old man to celebrate his triumph and “sing and dance with us.” It doesn’t get more egotistical than that. Nobody asks the old king whether he wants to drink from the fountain of youth; they simply force it down his throat:
(angry and perturbed)
What you’ve made of me is what I must become.
More chance of sadness; more chance of loss;
another trudge into old age, waiting
for my sight to fail, my hearing to fail, my body to weaken …
I had lived my life. Now I have time back I am lost in time;
I must live my past again as another man.
I could smell death: something of richness in it
I could see death: vast and shadowless
I could hear death: voices drifting to silence.
My last thought before sleeping
My first thought on waking:
Death death death death death
Harsent has a knack for exploding human certainties, in this instance the assumption that we’d all like to be young forever; his Aeson knows that life is worth losing, but must nonetheless endure his son and daughter-in-law as they keep him alive purely to suit their own purposes. A supremely gifted librettist, Harsent understands that “the gods punish hubris” and that “everyone is guilty”, but that the trick lies in picking a specific moment and mood in a story to slide the spectator into the heart of these dilemmas. It’s the composer’s duty to sustain that mood, and there’s a wonderful section ten minutes into the opera where Medea calls out the names of the “herbs that harm to cure”:
Horehound sysmera woundwort
sanicle lupine saxifrage
Birtwistle’s score, with its hypnotic, repetitious use of the E note, perfectly frames the words with its bold, sharp contours, ensuring the violin, viola and cello don’t drown the voices. In the end, Aeson’s youth is restored, but he storms off after violently kissing Medea, throwing her to the ground when he’s done with her: hardly the reward she’d been expecting. Further complicating matters, Aeson and Jason are now almost indistinguishable—a visual element reinforced by the fact the tenor Mark Padmore plays both roles—shaking the foundation of Medea’s love for Jason and signaling the birth of her new-found independence.
The New York Times has called the Harsent-Birtwistle team—whose collaboration began with Gawain (1991) and continued with The Woman and the Hare (1999), The Ring Dance of the Nazarene (2003), The Minotaur (2008), The Corridor (2009), Songs from the Same Earth (2012), and now The Cure—“an alchemically potent pairing,” and while Harsent has pointed out that “opera is about the music; few people speak of Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni or Piave’s La Traviata,” I’d like to see anyone argue that Mozart’s greatest operas—The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte—weren’t also achieved thanks to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s vast talents. After all, Da Ponte was so sought after that most composers in Vienna fought over him. Harsent, arguably Britain’s greatest living poet, is nearing the end of what’s been an amazingly fertile decade, which began with the Forward Prize-winning Legion, a sequence of poetic dispatches from the various parts of our war-torn world, and concluded with Fire Songs, which is dedicated to Birtwistle. It’s a sequence of hallucinatory reflections on how our world might end: “My children’s children will stand outside the law, to wreck / and break, to witness, to set fires, to fall on the weak.”
The Cure, which debuted this summer, is a companion piece to The Corridor, which was revived so it could be performed back-to-back with its younger sibling. Its setting is the liminal moment in the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, when Orpheus turns to look at his beloved just as she’s a couple of paces shy of returning to the world of the living.
Needless to say, the Orpheus myth is one of the most patronizing to women: it’s all about his pain, his misfortune, his attempt to rescue her, his lyre, while Eurydice has instead usually stood around like a prop. No longer. Alison Chitty’s set for The Corridor should be commended for visually balancing the story in Eurydice’s favor, allowing her far more room to roam than her impatient lover: Orpheus stands on one side of a doorframe, standing atop a square of bright, almost uninviting green, with Eurydice on the other, surrounded (and dressed in) a soothing slate gray. The lighting also has the effect of making Orpheus’s side of the world seem far more inhospitable than the world of the dead, making the green glow like ectoplasm rather than soft, welcoming grass.
The beginning is bold but simple, the quasi-monosyllabic dialogue punctuated by Birtwistle’s staccato notes, especially around the word light, as the couple makes its way back to the world of the living. By the time Eurydice reaches the far end of the aisle, she staggers and an argument ensues. Trumping convention, Birtwistle and Harsent restore her dimensions, giving her a cutting rebuttal to every one of Orpheus’s lines:
—you looked back because—
—because you seemed to be already there—
—because the moment seemed more yours than mine—
—because I felt you step into the light—
—because you felt I’d be there as I should—
—because love brought me round—
—because you thought love owed you everything—
Harsent and Birtwistle make Eurydice the real star. Like Aeson, she was never desperate to be rescued, or at least didn’t think of it as such an uncomplicated proposition. She’s no damsel in distress. Actually, she seems quite at home in the underworld. Orpheus may sing, but Eurydice makes sense. For instance, this following passage is in a kind of sprechgesang:
Suppose he’d brought me out; imagine that—
the blaze of noon, unbearable, the wind
sour in my nostrils, grass like flint underfoot,
his spittle stinging my lip,
a tangle of voices, urgent, meaningless,
my true language the soft
hints and gentle laughter of the dead.
In life he loved me; in death he loved me more—
my second life his gift to both of us;
my second death to be mine and mine alone.
What did he want from me?—My love his due,
my return to the world of light his masterstroke.
Eurydice knows her lyre-wielding lover is doomed: “his grief will become his token, his name / another word for loss: all he’s remembered by,” she says, knowing Orpheus is doomed to be ripped apart by the maenads, Dionysus’s mad, lustful acolytes. We all know how the story ends: Orpheus loses his nerve an inch shy of victory, turns, and thus loses her forever. Here is the end of Orpheus’s song:
There’s only one word
dark enough, one word as bleak, as cruel,
as blighted, as unnatural, one word
to uproot the tongue, to deafen, to break bones,
to tear the heart, a word to blacken rain,
to rot fruit on the bough, to poison streams,
to still the child in the womb, to bring to ruin
all joy or gift or courage or hope or love—
Eurydice … Eurydice … Eurydice … Eurydice…
André Naffis-Sahely’s poetry was most recently featured in The Best British Poetry 2014. His latest translation is The Physiology of the Employee by Honoré de Balzac.