Down By the Greenwood Side review – Birtwistle's opera disturbs as much as it entertains

Harvey's Depot, Lewes
Harrison Birtwistle's 1969 opera returns to the Brighton festival as part of his 80th birthday celebrations, and much of its aggressive unpredictability remains

Premiered on the West Pier during the 1969 Brighton festival, Harrison Birtwistle's early music-theatre piece returns for this year's event as part of the celebrations surrounding the composer's 80th birthday. This time around it relocates to Lewes, where Susannah Waters' fight-club production is staged in the disused former depot of Harvey's Brewery. An immersive preamble that mirrors the piece's blend of sinister ritual and pantomime comedy, but also feels overlong, plays in the yard outside.

With its aggressive unpredictability and rough-theatre manners, Birtwistle's "dramatic pastoral" is redolent of its period, but it also exemplifies the composer's preoccupation with myths and folk tales, as already disclosed at Aldeburgh the previous year with his opera Punch and Judy. There are two constituents to the libretto, written by a young Michael Nyman, both drawing on old English traditions. One is a mummers' play in which St George fights with and is killed by Bold Slasher, only to be resurrected first by Dr Blood and later (following a second round) by Jack Finney; the other is the disturbing folk ballad of The Cruel Mother, sung by the guilty Mrs Green. These elements remain separate until finally acknowledging each other near the close.

Invigorating the Lewes production is Steve North's gung-ho Father Christmas, who holds the ring between James Garnon's belligerent St George and Nick Tigg's equally truculent Slasher. Richard Attlee combines a grotesquely jocular Dr Blood with the mimed Jack Finney. Elizabeth Cragg contributes a distraught presence as Mrs Green, circling the performing space in never-ending mourning, though not enough of her sung text comes over.

In charge of the nine-piece ensemble placed to one side of Nicola Blackwell's boxing-ring set, conductor Christopher Stark maintains effective musical control over a performance that disconcerts as much as it entertains.


George Hall

The GuardianTramp

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