Arriving early for the Oxford’s premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s contemporary single act opera The Corridor, a notice on the door encourages us to explore the pitch black cloisters of New College. I obediently step into darkness, but beat a hasty retreat when I see tombstones underfoot; a corridor of death indeed. Within the chapel, under the blue-lit gaze of ranks of bureaucrat saints, a huge harp blocks the way between the choir. In an anxious murmur, the audience find their seats, shadows in shadows.
An uncertain note rises from the entrance, followed by one more assured, but with an edge; Orpheus is leading Eurydice out of hell, and she is protesting. This short, soaring scena pulls a silent woman from mythology and gives her a wild, dizzying, pyrotechnical voice. The libretto, part spoken, part sung, retraces the moment that closes the first song of the piece; when Orpheus stops at the brink of the living world, glances back, and loses his love forever. This tragedy trades in ambiguity; Orpheus (Harry O’Neill) has a playboy edge, a long red tie and a tidy suit. Hannah McDermott’s tangled hair and simmering anguish hint at an outrage; a tragedy forced on her, against her consent. At the threshold of the waking world, Aoife Miralles’ harp strikes notes like prison bars.
The audience are in the Shades, squinting into the light, alongside McDermott. When she spits her lines at the ensemble, they respond, snake-squirming woodwind and shattering strings, faint quavers and graces spiralling into gloom. This catastrophic collapse of young love is mesmerising – hectoring, petulant, fretful, cruel. Frozen in the anguish of that irrevocable look that ends everything, we share Eurydice’s incandescent fury at how the living impose stories on the dead, futilely re-casting them as bit parts in grand dramas that no longer have any meaning for them.