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Birtwistle's The Last Supper

From City Halls in Glasgow, a performance of Birtwistle's millennial opera The Last Supper, featuring the BBC SSO under Martyn Brabbins, with baritone Roderick Williams as Christ.

In the year 2000 the Ghost of Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Last Supper calls on Christ and his disciples to reunite: to remember, and reflect on humanity and the world around them. Originally commissioned by Staatsoper, Berlin and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, this will be the first UK performance since its initial production.

It is described as a 'dramatic tableau', and as with many Birtwistle scores the drama is in the music itself: the opera has all of his characteristically strong-etched colours, ritualised structures, and long-spun lyrical lines, all underpinned by driving rhythmic momentum.

Long associated with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Martyn Brabbins conducts an outstanding cast of soloists including Roderick Williams as Jesus, and Susan Bickley as the mysterious presence known as Ghost. Interspersed with the action the BBC Singers perform the Three Latin Motets which represent some of Birtwistle's most haunting and questioning music, along with electonic realisations by Sound Intermedia. Presented by Andrew McGregor.

Christ ..... Roderick Williams (baritone)
Judas ..... Daniel Norman (tenor)
Ghost ..... Susan Bickley (mezzo soprano)
Little James ..... William Towers (countertenor)
James ..... Bernhard Landauer (countertenor)
Thomas ..... Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor)
Andrew ..... Alexander Sprague (tenor)
Simon ..... Philip Sheffield (tenor)
Bartholomew ..... Andrew Tortise (tenor)
Philip ..... Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
John ..... Benedict Nelson (baritone)
Matthew ..... Toby Girling (bass-baritone)
Thaddaeus ..... Matthew Brook (bass)
Peter ..... Edward Grint (bass)

BBC Singers
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Sound Intermedia
Martyn Brabbins (conductor).

2 hours, 15 minutes

Music Played

  • Sir Harrison Birtwistle

    The Last Supper

    Orchestra: BBC Scottish S O. Conductor: Martyn Brabbins. Singer: Roderick Williams. Singer: Daniel Norman. Singer: Susan Bickley.


‘I am the ghost of you, of your century … I can see myself in your eyes.’ The character Ghost, who opens the opera, tells the audience that she is one of us. She exists in the present and acts as an intermediary between us, in the here and now, and the events that took place in an upper room in Jerusalem on the first Maundy Thursday. In a long prologue, she watches, she waits, preparing us for the events that are to follow. She sings of the brutality of our own times. ‘I watch with you the subterranean stream of our history come to the surface.’ Eventually, we come to realise that the Last Supper is to be re-enacted. Ghost summons Christ and his followers out of the past: ‘Tonight you and I invite the eleven disciples to supper – once again – over bread and wine.’
The disciples enter singly and in pairs, Peter first, with his brother Andrew, all except for Judas. Each sings of his own experiences and recalls his time with Jesus. And they dance. They wonder what they are doing there, and whether Jesus will join them. Once all are assembled, they begin to reconstruct the table for the supper, piece by piece. Judas enters with a red cloth, unnoticed by the others. Together they sing the Lord’s Prayer, to which Judas adds the final ‘Amen’. Shocked that he has returned, they tell Judas to leave. They quiz him, they accuse him of betrayal; yet it soon becomes clear that Judas is tormented by his past actions. ‘I looked upon his silver face and wept’, he sings, in a deeply melancholic aria. He poses a riddle: ‘What can go in the face of the sun, yet leave no shadow?’ The disciples search for an answer, without success. Amidst all this arguing and recrimination, Christ suddenly appears with the solution: ‘The Wind’. The tumult ceases as the chorus whispers ‘Alleluia!’
The first of three visions depicts the Crucifixion, accompanied by the singing of the text of a medieval motet. Christ then blesses the disciples. Again they ask why they are there. Christ tells them he has come to wash away the dust of centuries, to atone for millennia of hatred, violence and discrimination. He washes their feet in turn. To further calls of ‘Alleluia!’, they take their places at the table, Judas included. ‘Who is the betrayer? What has been betrayed?’ The second vision represents the Stations of the Cross. Christ offers his body and blood in the form of bread and wine, a sign of life, of love. As they walk to the Mount of Olives, the final vision depicts the Betrayal. ‘Whom do you seek?’ Christ asks. The sound of a solitary cock crow is the only answer.


Role Contributor
Performer BBC Singers
Performer BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra