A scruffy group of blunt everyday working men, spectrally summoned to a reunion across the millennia, arrive haunted by burning questions. The Last Supper in the upper room resonates through time as Christians worldwide break bread and drink wine in remembrance. Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s The Last Supper, first performed in 2000 and given here in semi-staged performance by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, examines the effect on this collection of salt-of-the-earth characters of being snatched from their everyday lives to be caught up in extraordinary events.

<i>The Last Supper</i> © BBC | Alex Woodward
The Last Supper
© BBC | Alex Woodward

Described as a “dramatic tableaux” for 14 soloists, small chorus and chamber orchestra, The Last Supper (libretto by Robin Blaser) is two hours of intense densely structured words and music. The orchestra, under Birtwistle expert Martin Brabbins, was bass heavy with no violins, but the piquancy of accordion, synthesiser and low woodwinds added to the soundscape which Birtwistle builds up into strange muscular layers of music, with the BBC Singers providing the small chorus and pre-recorded chorus. It is not an easy piece for anyone, particularly the chorus which gave an outstanding performance picking out notes from thin air, sounding ethereal and blending with other worldly electronic voices. The three a cappella choruses of Latin motets depicting the visions of the Crucifixion, Stations of the Cross and the Betrayal shone brightly as highpoints.

In a cast change, reprising her role at the opera’s première 17 years ago Susan Bickley returned to the role of Ghost, the ghost of you and I summoning the eleven disciples. Appearing in a grey chiffon evening gown, she sang with a time-weary timbre setting the scene as we waited for the Disciples to drift in, in ones and twos, asking themselves why there were there, and whether Judas had been invited. I liked director Victoria Newlyn’s workaday costumes with welly boots for the fishermen, leather apron and bib and braces for tradesmen and a tie for white collar tax collector Matthew. The gruff individual characters danced and clapped and then loudly shunned Judas when he arrived with a bolt of red cloth in case Jesus should put in an appearance. In this very strongly cast group of disciples the singing was uniformly powerful and passionate, Daniel Norman’s repentant Judas especially touching. They build a table for the coming supper.

Susan Bickley (Ghost) © BBC | Alex Woodward
Susan Bickley (Ghost)
© BBC | Alex Woodward

In the middle of a huge row over a riddle put by Judas, Jesus finally appears and provides the answer. Roderick Williams gave a commanding central performance as Jesus, noble, gravely authoritative and gentle as he knelt to bless his disciples one by one, listing to each a litany of disappointments that have happened in the past two millennia, including the Holocaust, and excusing Judas somewhat by explaining that they both did what they had to do. With the rich red cloth now covering the table, Newlyn twice froze the cast into the position of the disciples and Jesus in Michelangelo’s famous mural, linking the ancient and modern Last Suppers.   

Brabbins provided clear leadership, building intensity and negotiating Birtwistle’s ritualistic writing, the continually shifting orchestral angles with its deep moods, joining up the many fragments seamlessly with the soloists and choir.

Roderick Williams (Christ) © BBC | Alex Woodward
Roderick Williams (Christ)
© BBC | Alex Woodward

While this was an excellent performance, there was a problem of balance as the almost continual noisy score tended to overwhelm the diction of several of the singers. Sadly, there were no supertitles or libretto provided, so much of the detail of Blaser’s words was lost, which was a pity particularly as the work became more enigmatic in the final stages. The Ghost, and so all of us, are invited by Jesus to be part of the group, and as the cast drift off into the Garden, Jesus asks “Whom do you seek?” as a cock crows.   

A good sized crowd turned out on a cold January night to hear this rare and intriguing work, here receiving its Scottish première at Glasgow’s City Halls, given in the presence of the composer who took to the podium to applaud the players, then the singers before taking his bow.