18 NOVEMBER 2000, Page 77


The Last Supper; La boheme (Glyndebourne Touring Opera)

Powerful impressions

Michael Tanner

Glyndebourne Touring Opera is, most courageously, taking round the country Harrison Birtwistle's new opera, The Last Supper, with the cast that gave the world Premiere last April in Berlin. Lasting an hour and 50 minutes, with no break — something to be devoutly looked forward to next year on home territory — it is a daunting piece both for its performers and its audience, the latter being commendably large in Norwich last week. My overall feel- ing was that, despite formidable shortcom- ings, it is a work which makes a powerful impression, and encourages one to return, preferably after listening to the invaluable guide which Glyndebourne provides on CD, The almost crushing weight under which the work labours is the text which Robin Blaser has provided. At once colloquial and pretentious, solemn and on occasion ponderously jocular, it has a powerful shape but its detailed contents hardly sur- vive the close scrutiny that they invite by being, as usual with Birtwistle's operas, pre- sented as surtitles — though without them one would hardly keep afloat. If the text is as significant as it appears to be, then it simply cannot be absorbed at the same time as one is concentrating on the work as ,a whole. Take the disciple Thomas's lines, Doubt is a footstep in personal and cosmic/relations. Doubt is accompanied by/ the body's glory and its shatters.' Those rid- dling words, entirely characteristic of the piece, are sung fairly swiftly, and one either works out what they mean or lets them wash over one; but then most of the text goes the same way. It has not inspired Birtwistle to striking solo vocal lines, either how could it?

The real interest resides in the situation, the disposition of the characters — despite its static nature, this is an intensely visual piece — and the often overwhelming force of the orchestral music, as well as the really grand and probably great choral passages, especially the one which accompanies the first of the three Visions, of the Crucifix- inn. Whether we actually need to experi- ence the Visions, brilliantly executed but rather kitschy in effect, they make a strik- ing contrast with the spareness of the basic set, merely a wall with sometimes a gap in it through which the characters enter and depart. When they are all assembled, they build the table round which they gather for this rerun of the Last Supper — for we are witnessing something which is contempo- rary, indeed which takes the original meal and its participants as matter for discus- sion, and which leads to a revaluation of their significance. Judas, for example, who is acted and sung with the greatest intensity and intelligence by Thomas Randle, asks the riddle which leads to Christ's appear- ing, and is also told by Christ, 'You did what you had to do.' What the work amounts to, then, on the level of text and action, is a mixture of ritu- al and theology, with the intersection of the two providing the dramatic interest. Unfor- tunately the theology too often takes a leading position, and Birtwistle is powerless to animate it musically, indeed hardly seems to care as his chthonic orchestra rumbles impressively on its way, emerging into prominence when individual charac- ters have something approaching arias to sing, when they are accompanied by exquisitely plangent woodwind solos. The further figure of Ghost, who observes the whole thing, and indeed introduces it, is sung, once more with more conviction than her laboured text deserves, by Susan Bick- ley. I wondered whether her prime function was to provide some vocal contrast to the all-male cast, even though the two Jameses are sung by counter-tenors, but their roles are small. What, despite all the large short- comings of the work, we experience, is something whose cumulative effect is far greater than the slow and low burning of the opening half hour would seem to ren- der possible. It will, I feel confident, never receive a finer performance than this.

It was a relief to be back in contact with Puccini's La boheme after the depressing outing of Leoncavallo's last week. This is a production specifically for the touring com- pany, and went with a swing. But I feel that David McVicar's updating of it is a funda- mental mistake. The piece belongs, in all respects, to a period which is in the sharpest contrast to the present, certainly so far as student life is concerned. Puccini's characters are an innocent lot, even Muset- ta, and their innocence is of a kind not to be found today.

The surtitles of Lee Blakeley do their best to translate the libretto into contem- porary student argot, more or less; Muset- ta, played with gusto by a shrill-voiced Claron McFadden as a post-punk, has some plausibility, but trying to show this group as a collection one might come across in a kitchensit now only makes us realise the never-never quality of Puccini's immortals. And one can't help wondering why Mimi dies, given that her complaint is not updated into an untreatable new `plague'. Yet none of these considerations can dampen the enormous vitality of Pucci- ni's music, here at its freshest if not great- est. The conducting of Louis Langree is insufficiently affectionate, lacking the incessant rubato and the occasional slancio of the finest Puccini interpreters. The singers all have adequate voices, but haven't been discouraged from shouting: the most intimate exchanges are conducted at the tops of their voices, the worst culprit being Alfred Boe's Rodolfo. They look and act with conviction, given the basic premise of the production. It was a huge hit with the audience, a testimony to Puccini's irre- sistible genius.