Opera Review



The Last Supper

Music by Harrison Birtwistle
Libretto by Robin Blaser

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