Thursday 5 June 2014

It all counts: Birtwhistle’s Yan Tan Tethera at the Barbican

Harrison Birtwistle
Harrison Birtwistle
Birtwistle Yan Tan Tethera: Britten Sinfonia, Baldur Brönnimann: Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on May 29 2014
Star rating: 5.0

80th birthday celebrations for Birtwistle with his 1986 opera

The Barbican has birthday fever this year. They have celebrated 40 years of Kronos Quartet, 40 years of Nonesuch records, and now for the 80th birthday of Harrison Birtwistle the Barbican has hosted the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Baldur Brönnimann for a performance of Birtwistle's opera 'Yan Tan Tethera: A mechanical pastoral'.

Before the opera Birtwhistle talked about his thoughts about 'Yan Tan Tethera' - glibly saying that he 'wanted it to have the landscape of Postman Pat' but, more seriously, that it was political opera about 'the dark side and light side'. He explained that it was about prejudice and exclusion saying it was about 'some people who say we don't want others to be here' and 'a group of sheep which are the wrong sheep.'

Although Yan Tan Tethera was written thirty years ago in 1984, in the current political climate, where the fear about what freedom of employment across Europe means to the general working public has been made plain in the recent EuroMP elections, this opera has lost none of its punch.

Everything about 'Yan Tan Tethera' was understated. The libretto, by Tony Harrison, provides a supernatural thriller where an incomer shepherd (Alan performed by Roderick Williams), who is largely ignored by his neighbour (Caleb sung by Omar Ebrahim), becomes the subject of envy – his flock continues to increase in number and he has married the local beauty (Hannah performed by Claire Booth).

The local shepherd, who we know to be a bad man because he has melted down the church bells to make bells for his own sheep and steals gold from tombs in the hills, makes a deal with the 'bad 'un' (Daniel Norman who also plays the part of the mysterious piper) to get rid of his rival and to gain the affections of the other man's wife.

The deal backfires because the wife, distraught at the loss of her husband and new born babies, remains true - even when Caleb gives her two children from his village to replace the ones he stole from her. Eventually, because of her true love, the man and the now grown children are released from the barrow, where they were being held prisoner, and are returned to her.

The four children were performed admirably by Ben Knight, Benjamin Clegg, Joe Gooding and Duncan Tarboton. As two set of twins they had one tall and one short in each pair which was a little odd. Presumably it was because of balancing out voices rather than worrying too much about aesthetics.

The adult performers all brought drama to the stage. I was not too sure about Claire Booth when she first came on, but her impassioned performance won me over. The three men, Roderick Williams, Omar Ebrahim, and Daniel Norman were all superb and worked well together.

Throughout, several ideas serve as vehicles for hope and fear. Counting becomes a superstitious charm against evil, somewhere between a prayer and a magic spell 'Yan, tan tethera, one two three, sweet trinity, keep us and our sheep". A prayer which both the incomer shepherd and his wife use. The other shepherd tries to use the charm – but cannot get the hang of it – and it is his undoing. A second theme is that of the mysterious piper, a noise on the hill that makes the shepherd homesick and begins to drive him mad, but which expands into the more than just noise on the wind.

Close to the northern heart of both the composer (Birtwistle was born in Accrington and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music) and librettist was the repeated line 'I think of the north and I don't want to stay". A cry of the dispossessed – even if the dispossession is self inflicted.

Directed by John Lloyd Davies the staging was simple but effective, with two raised dais representing the hills on which the two farmers lived and kept their sheep. A path painted on the floor between the two wound around the top of the platforms, indicating the winding path up the mountains. Atmospheric conditions were achieved by dry ice and coloured lighting. Daniel Norman dancing with his flute in misty red light was suitably spooky in context with the dramatic score. Costuming was also kept simple but colour coding left you in no doubt who was who.

The orchestra sat between the staging and the choir taken from Britten Sinfonia Voices, who were sometimes the wind, and sometimes the sheep (with black or white masks depending on their owner). I really liked the chorus - there was some really impressive bleating going on through which words were still understandable.

Conductor Baldur Brönnimann was very much in charge, providing clear guidance to the orchestra and singers. Birtwistles' music was full of character, emphasising the upset and panic of the various characters. In stark contrast, the mystical flute had a folksy, haunting, theme, the merging of old and new enhancing the timelessness of the opera.

This was an opera that I could see again and again. There are hidden depths which on one hearing (viewing?) I only caught glimpses of. Having watched 'Yan Tan Tethera' I want to see more.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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