Two short works by Harrison Birtwistle, linked by themes of death and desire, opened this year’s Aldeburgh Festival at Snape Maltings. The Corridor is a brief scena for soprano and tenor inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, first premiered in 2009. The Cure, also a scena but a slightly fuller work with more narrative drive, is a brand new work for 2015, focusing on a rather less familiar aspect of Medea’s mythical life story: her rejuvenation (by magic) of Jason’s elderly father Aeson on Jason’s triumphant return from Colchis. For both pieces, subtly-crafted libretti by David Harsent, thoughtfully researched and poetically satisfying, are set in Birtwistle’s characteristic musical language of dissonance, sharp edges and smooth yearning lines.

Director Martin Duncan has created two distinctive worlds for these pieces, and they are certainly different in tone and atmosphere. The Corridor is almost entirely static: most of its action is psychological, focusing on the unravelling of egos and intentions after the breakup of a relationship. The Cure, on the other hand, is full of clear gesture and movement (choreographed by Michael Popper) as Medea plucks herbs, creates a sacred circle, and casts her spells: much of the psychological drama of The Cure only comes about after, or because, action has been taken. Alison Chitty’s clean and ruthlessly minimalist designs incorporate our small band of musicians from the London Sinfonietta on stage in costume, conducted from below by Geoffrey Paterson. Chitty makes creative use of light by Paul Pyant in both parts of the programme: the eponymous corridor is an L-shaped strip of light on the stage, with a box of green light at one side to represent the upper world into which Eurydice (in the libretto, “The Woman”) cannot follow Orpheus (“The Man”). Medea’s magic circle of salt and stone is also transcribed in light, with the changing phases of the moon throughout her spellcasting projected onto the back of the stage, while a simple mountain and small rock pile allow for the necessary retrieval of props (and, indeed, the sudden apparition of characters).

The most interesting thing about The Corridor, in classical terms, is the moment, and mood, that Harsent and Birtwistle have chosen to dramatise. So many treatments of this myth in later art focus either on Orpheus’ descent to hell, or the moment when he turns (too soon) and Eurydice is snatched away from his sight: the focus, in short, tends to be always on Orpheus’ grief for Eurydice. But in The Corridor, we spend far more time with Eurydice than we do with Orpheus: and her feelings, in Harsent’s view, are not straightforward. “What did he want from me? — My love his due, my return to the world his masterstroke.”  

The anger Harsent finds in both characters is fascinating: Orpheus angry with Eurydice for not keeping up with him, and Eurydice angry with Orpheus, alternatively, for failing to rescue her, and for trying to rescue her at all “Suppose he’d brought me out; imagine that – the blaze of noon, unbearable… my true language the soft hints and gentle laughter of the dead.” The sense builds throughout the piece that Eurydice never wanted to be rescued from death: a reluctance echoed in The Cure by Aeson, who rages at Medea that he “could smell death: something of richness in it”, and that he does not want “more chance of sadness; more chance of loss; another trudge into old age…” In both pieces, the way the living impose their will on the dead, or almost dead, is resented: death is something understood, and longed for. Interesting work from two men who, if not elderly, are certainly fairly far along life’s path, for a society which fears death more than ever.

The Corridor’s brevity does not help its audience, who get little chance to settle into Birtwistle’s angular vernacular, while the lack of action can leave it feeling rather turgid. A mixture of song and dramatic speech for Eurydice also makes the soprano’s life difficult: Elizabeth Atherton sounds natural when singing, but sadly many of Eurydice’s words are lost (mainly because of how those words are set within the music), and while her speech is abundantly clear, her switches to that speech often feel artificial, mannered and disruptive. Nevertheless, Atherton gives a thoughtful performance, with wonderful tone in her voice. Mark Padmore has an easier time as Orpheus, his tenor gloriously articulate, his grief sincere and simply conveyed.

As Medea, by contrast, Atherton is vibrant and clear, giving a commanding and memorable performance which makes the most not only of Medea’s ferocity, but also her vulnerability. Medea can “make things happen”, but the price or implications of her magic are frighteningly unclear to her, producing an underlying sense of mounting unease beautifully exploited here by Atherton. Mark Padmore has the fascinating task of portraying both Jason, the depressingly utilitarian lover happy to use Medea for her power, and Aeson, the old man first seduced by the idea of youth renewed, then revolted by it. Changing his voice constantly from one “age” to another makes this dual character exceptionally demanding, and Padmore rises to the challenge, whether in Aeson’s hoarse deathbed whisper, or Jason’s smooth, confident retorts. By the end, Medea herself is unsure who he is: Aeson and Jason have merged indistinguishably, and more importantly, she no longer knows who she loves. The seeds of the ultimate failure of her marriage, and her terrible crimes to follow, are all deliciously implicit.

If you’re not already a committed Birtwistle aficionado, The Corridor may feel like a bit of a waiting-room, but The Cure is well worth the wait.