It's taken me a few listens to get going with this, but understanding has given way to awe as the scope of Birtwistle's intent has dawned on me. This is a total work of art beyond mere pigeon-holing as music. It is ritual theatre that draws on roots as ancient as classical Greek drama and beyond. Birtwistle integrates startling orchestration and state of the art electronic synthesis, to give rise to something that is utterly new and vital, and that manages to entirely avoid the post-modernist clichés that so much contemporary music falls into. The thing operates on so many levels, both compositionally and dramatically, that one could hear it many times and still have only scratched the surface. If you believe in the future of the tradition of high European art then you have to come to some kind of terms with this music.
OK. So Harry Birtwistle is tough, I know. But perseverance, especially in this piece, reaps copious rewards.
This is a huge opera - not particularly in length or even in the forces demanded, but in ambition. It starts with the very birth of language and song, a musical creation myth as potent as the beginning of Rheingold, and takes us through a dramatic narrative that deals in the nature and meaning of myth and memory while telling the story of Orpheus and Euridice. Or, rather, the stories. For the Mask of Orpheus continually takes different views of the myth, different versions of the story as handed down by the folk traditions, and sets them agaist each other to reflect on one another.
Cold and intellectual, then? Not at all. I have never sat through the end of the second Act - either in the theatre or listening at home - without a tear or two. Act 1 includes an aria with flute obbligato as ravishing and purely beautiful as anything in Birtwistle's output (at least before The Second Mrs. Kong). That Act ends with the terrifying ululations of the Oracle of the Dead - truly scary. The dramatic impact of the second Act as Orpheus moves from arch to arch across to the Land of the Dead (what a curiously inexplicable but potent image those arches are) reaches a towering and thrilling climax. The musical tides of the third Act move inexorably in and out, gathering power and emotional coherence as they evolve.
As for the electronic music, that is wonderfully integrated into the fabric of the piece. The Voice of the god Apollo is, as it should be, imposing and mesmeric. The interludes (representing other mythological stories that reflect on and elaborate the main narrative and which are mimed/danced in the theatre), these grow organically and seamlessly out of the main musical fabric. And they are music, pure and satisfying, not distortions of other things or mere sound-collages. It's just that they were created on the machines at IRCAM and not on the machines we know as conventional musical instruments.
Does the performance live up to the piece, then? Certainly does! Maybe no-one will bring quite the intensity to Orpheus 1 that Philip Langridge did in the premiere performances - but, then, that's true of most of his work. This is a recording of a live semi-staged concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall - maybe not the kindest acoustic for this piece, especially for the singers - but all the performers acquit themselves heroically and show real dedication to what is, I believe, one of the great operas of the second half of the last century.
Try it. Then try it again. You could get hooked on 'difficult' music.