The Last Supper
by Harrison Birtwistle
Glyndebourne Touring Opera, Apollo Theatre, 30th Nov 2000
The composer Harrison Birtwistle has long been fascinated by the
concept of ritual, and the often complex interrelationship between
myth and history. In this new piece, he and his librettist Robin Blaser
explore these themes, among others, through the medium of an almost
certainly historical, and also fundamentally ritualistic event - Christ's
last supper. In doing so, they have created between them a moving,
atmospheric and thought-provoking work, but one which is, in the last
analysis, rather unsatisfying.
This is no conventional examination of the events at the first eucharist.
An archetypally post-modern work, The Last Supper explodes
the twenty centuries of tradition and belief that have grown up around
the event, then flings them back together with no comfortable sense
of order to hang on to. Blaser's libretto consists largely of a series
of esoteric, unanswered questions, blurring the boundaries between
fact and myth and between religion and atheism, and questioning conventional
notions of Christianity, especially in relation to Judaisim. In a
dark, forboding opening passage, the enigmatic " Ghost ",
on behalf of the audience and all modern people, summons the twelve
disciples and Jesus to share the bread and wine once more, and to
" look through the three zeros of the year 2000 ". They
duly appear ; as the accusations and questions begin to fly between
them, the picture which posterity has come to believe of the Last
Supper and its significance begins to crumble. This decay is made
all the more poignant by the punctuation of the action by three visions
: these tableaux are comfortably conventional, catholic pictures of
Christ's passion, which contrast sharply with the destruction of convention
going on all round.
Some of the messages of The Last Supper are almost cloyingly
obvious. Recitations from Jewish scripture are superimposed on the
chanting of the Christian Lord's Prayer, emphasising the inherent
oneness of the two religions. Judas's reconciliation with the apostles,
and the acknowledgement of hs essential role in Christ's rising to
glory, breaks down anti-semitic notions of blame which history has
attached to him and to the Jewish race. Christ again washes his deciples
feet - this time he is trying to remove the dust of the " bestiality
and vileness " committed by man through history. Violence perpetrated
in the name of religion is condemned : the apostles writhe in anguish
as Ghost chants " Don't you hear Messiah coming in His tank ?
" Man's inhumanity to man is a source of anguish to Jesus, who
died for the race : " the holocaust shattered my heart ".
But these are hardly novel ideas. And while there is a deeper, underlying
significance to the piece, it seems deliberately to have been left
so vague as to be unfathomable. Purposefully neither religious or
irreligious, Blaser's libretto offers no answers to the great questions
it continually poses. Frequent, veiled references to a great "
I AM ", and esoteric phrases daubed in light on the wall, serve
only to increase the uncertainty. At the last, as Christ leaves the
stage seemingly as just another man, he challenges those watching
to reflect on what they were expecting of him ; almost simultaneously,
a cock's crow suggests that the audience's accusations of betrayal
and doubt should have been directed back on themselves rather than
on Judas or Thomas, and tears away the last vestiges of belief.
This uncertainty is all very well, but on the whole it serves rather to give one a sense of continually groping for something that is beyond one's reach - and the poetry of the libretto is not sufficiently beautiful to compensate for its vagueness. Birtwistle's music is not easy to listen to, but it is thoroughly effective and atmospheric. His unorthodox choice of instruments (lots of low woodwind, bizarre percussion, keyboards, accordion and choirs of live and recorded voices) gives a tense, energetic feel to the whole, and allows him to build up a depth of significance. The performance and staging are as exemplary as one would expect from Glyndobourne touring opera, the former all the more impressive given the difficulty of the score. But while post-modernists might revel in the interplay of disparate notions of ritual, betrayal, life and meaning from across the centuries, others may just find The Last Supper infuriatingly enigmatic.
Matthew Rogers, 30 / 11 / 00