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What if old age can be cured in some kind of magical way? Commissioned by London's Royal Opera House and the Aldeburgh Festival, composer Harrison Birtwistle and writer David Harsent's new chamber opera The Cure tells the story of Medea, the witch who restores her father-in-law Aeson's youth with some powerful magic.
The Cure has been written as the counterpart to The Corridor, which focuses on the fatal moment of Orpheus' backward glance at Eurydice. Each performed on the same set and under the same direction, these two pieces of music theatre are inextricably intertwined by their radical interpretation of two Greek resurrection myths. Performed by soprano Elizabeth Atherton and tenor Mark Padmore, this promises to be a gripping double bill.
Sir Harrison Birtwistle used to be known as one of the most celebrated contemporary British composers. Many of his works premiered at the Aldeburgh Festival in the east of England, which was founded in 1948 by Benjamin Britten and his singer and partner Sir Peter Pears, following the example of the Holland Festival.
The story has it that in 1968 during the break of Birtwistle's premiere of Punch and Judy, the founders stormed out in protest, exasperated by the violence of the plot and the nature of the music.
But as they get older, many composers tend to become more solemn and restrained. Birtwistle, now 81, is no exception. The New York Times described the composer as 'once a gruff modernist, now the dean of British composition and Aldeburgh’s dramatic touchstone'.
Premiering last year at the Aldeburgh Festival, The Cure is Birtwistle's latest chamber opera. It has been written as the companion piece to The Corridor, which was staged at the Holland Festival in 2010. Both mini operas have librettos by the same writer (David Harsent), and were scored for the same six instruments (flute, clarinet, violin, viola, harp and cello) and the same voices (soprano and tenor).
Just like The Corridor, The Cure highlights one crucial dramatic moment from Greek mythology. In The Cure, this is the myth of the old, dying Aeson, Jason's father. Jason asks his wife Medea, a proud and fiercely independent sorceress, to give his father back his youth. Medea slowly revives Aeson with a potion made of herbs and her own blood. But she had not expected Aeson to grow younger and stronger, and starting to look more and more like his own son. When in the end she cannot distinguish between Jason and Aeson, she lusts after them both.
It's this transformation, as described in Ovid's Metamorphoses, from dying, old man to youthful vigour, from a hoarse whisper to a full tenor, which interests Birtwistle and Harsent. Conveying this change in minute detail, their single focus produces an intense and lyrical experience.
Birtwistle has adapted mythical stories before; in The Corridor, which deals with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice; and also Nenia: the Death of Orpheus, which was staged at the 2006 Holland Festival in conjunction with Theseus Game. With its pared down aesthetics and its compact ensemble, The Cure is typical of Birtwistle's later works. Described in one of the reviews as 'of an unparalleled beauty of colour', the score is performed by Elizabeth Atherton, Mark Padmore and the London Sinfonietta. Padmore is an international star who is seen as the consummate tenor of the moment and who has had work written for him by Birtwistle before. The world famous London Sinfonietta have, just like Birtwistle, always been esteemed guests at the Holland Festival.
Sir Harrison Paul Birtwistle (1934) is considered one of the greatest living composers around. He studied clarinet and composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music, where he formed the modernist group New Music Manchester with a group of highly talented fellow students. In 1965 Birtwistle received a scholarship which gave him the opportunity to continue his composition studies at Princeton.
He sold his clarinet and while still at Princeton wrote his first opera Punch and Judy. Birtwistle's early work reflects influences from Igor Strawinksy and Olivier Messiaen, two radical composers Birtwistle himself has named as a source of inspiration. His music has frequently been described as aggressive and brutal because of its emphasis on rhythm. His love of music theatre often gives his music a theatrical dimension. In his later life, Birtwistle developed a very individual, austere and uncompromising modernist aesthetic. In its rich history, the Holland Festival has presented many of Birtwistle's work. Following the performance of Birtwistle's masterpiece Earth Dances in 2006, Amsterdam daily Het Parool wrote 'Earth Dances' impact is big and immediate. It sounds like two versions of Sacre du Printemps having a big argument before making up again.’ Birtwistle has collaborated with leading orchestras and world class conductors such as Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim and Sir Simon Rattle. He has received many prestigious prizes for his work, including the Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis in 1995.
English soprano Elizabeth Atherton studied at Trinity College in Cambridge, and later at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama under Patricia MacMahon. She has won various prestigious prizes, including the Maggie Teyte Prize in 2001 and the Handel Singing Competition in 2003. The Welsh National Opera awarded her the Sir John Moores Award and the Chris Ball Bursary. From 2004 to 2007, she was with the WNO, and sang countless roles there, including that of Contessa (Le Nozze di Figaro), Elvira (Don Giovanni), Pamina (The Magic Flute), Micaela (Carmen) and Minerva (Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria). She furthermore has appeared at Opera North as Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte) and Helena (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), a part she also sung with the English Touring Opera. She performed the role of Eurydice at the world premiere of Birtwistle’s The Corridor (2010) during the Aldeburgh Festival and later at the Bregenz Festival and the Holland Festival. Besides, she created the role of Medea in the world premiere of Birtwistle’s The Cure (2015) at the Aldeburgh Festival and the Royal Opera House. She frequently performs on the concert stage, including during the BBC Proms, with orchestras like the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, the Orchestre de Paris, London Sinfonietta, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the English Festival Orchestra and the English Chamber Orchestra. She additionally presents many recitals and has recorded various CDs.
British singer Mark Padmore (London, 1961) graduated with an honours degree in music from King's College, Cambridge. Padmore is in great demand as a performer in oratorios, operas and recitals, effortlessly alternating between Bach, Schumann, Britten or Birtwistle. As a recording artist, he has compiled an impressive discography. His acclaimed appearances as Evangelist in Bach's St Matthew and St John Passions have gained particular notice. Padmore has given recitals worldwide. He appears frequently at Wigmore Hall in London, where he first sang all three Schubert song cycles in May 2008, and was their Artist in Residence in the 2009/10 season. As well as Romantic repertoire, Padmore also sings contemporary songs. Composers who have written for him include Harrison Birtwistle, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Thomas Larcher and many others. His regular collaborators include pianists Paul Lewis, Till Felner, Kristian Bezuidenhout, Julius Drake and Roger Vignoles. In concert he has performed with the world’s leading orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. In opera, Padmore has sung the lead in Handel's Jeptha for Welsh National Opera and English National Opera, and Captain Vere in Britten's Billy Budd at Glyndebourne Festival Opera. He also played Peter Quint in a BBC TV production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw and recorded the title role in La Clemenza di Tito with René Jacobs. His most recent work includes the leading roles in Birtwistle's The Corridor and The Cure at the Aldeburgh Festival and in London. Future roles include Third Angel/John in George Benjamin's Written on Skin with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. At the 2016 Musical America Awards Padmore was voted Vocalist of the Year.
David Harsent (1942) is a British poet and librettist. He has published eleven volumes of poetry. Legion won the Forward Prize for best collection 2005; Night (2011) was triple short-listed in the UK and won the Griffin International Poetry Prize. His most recent collection, Fire Songs, won the 2014 T.S. Eliot Prize. Other awards include two Arts Council Bursaries, a Society of Authors Award, The Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, and a Cholmondeley Award.Sprinting from the Graveyard, (1997), Harsent’s versions of poems written under siege by the Bosnian poet Goran Simic, were adapted to opera, to radio and to television. In Secret, his English versions of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, was published in 2012. Harsent is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2013 he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Roehampton where he is now Professor of Creative Writing. Harsent has collaborated with a number of composters, though most often with Harrison Birtwistle. The New York Times described Birtwistle and Harsent as 'a team creating alchemy'. Their operas - and other collaborations - have taken themes from folklore and mythology: Gawain (1991), for example, and The Minotaur (2008) as well as the chamber operas The Corridor (2010) and The Cure (2015). Birtwistle/Harsent collaborations have been performed at the Royal Opera House in London, BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, the Aldeburgh Festival, The Concertgebouw, The London South Bank Centre, The Salzburg Festival, Carnegie Hall, and now at the Holland Festival.
- Harrison Birtwistle
- David Harsent
- Martin Duncan
- set & costume design
- Alison Chitty
- lighting design
- Paul Pyant
- Michael Popper
- assitant director
- Marc Callahan
- Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor)
- Geoffrey Paterson
- assitant conductor
- Finnegan Downie Dear
- Simon Smith
- music performed by
- London Sinfonietta, Karen Jones (flute), Mark van de Wiel (clarinet),David Alberman (violin),Paul Silverthorne (viola), Tim Gill (cello), Helen Tunstall (harp)
- orchestra manager
- Han Hutchison
- production manager
- David Pritchard
- costume supervisor
- Ilaria Martello
- wardrobe supervisor
- Gemma Reeve
- supported by
- Simon & Victoria Robey and Lindsay & Sarah Tomlinson
- co-commissioned and co-produced by
- Aldeburgh Festival en The Royal Opera, met extra steun van London Sinfonietta