The Io Passion

Music by Harrison Birtwistle, words by Stephen Plaice
Aldburgh Almeida Opera
Gala, Durham, and touring

The Io Passion: production shot

Harrison Birtwistle writes abstract music - his own words. "I don't want," he says, "to write any more theatre pieces where somebody gives me a text and I just fill out the narrative, like film music."

In The Io Passion the same scene is performed seven time (five times in full and twice in part), with each repetition adding some more detail, or a different point of view, or a look inside the minds of the two characters, the Man and the Woman. Each character is played by three people, two singers and an actor, and at times all six can be onstage at once. At times - at least in terms of the form of the piece - I was reminded of Suspect Culture's Mainstream (although it is more successful than that rather flawed play) and Matthew Bourne's Play Without Words.

The seven parts are called Fits, which derive from the Old English Fytte meaning a part or section of a poem or song, or a strain or stave of music. Some identify it with the German Fitze, a skein of yarn with which weavers mark of a day's work. The last is, I think, illuminating: with each Fit, the piece becomes more complex and increases in depth, as the cloth becomes larger with each passing day.

We begin (in the first Fit) with a simple sequence of actions: the main waits outside the house, not daring to knock. The woman comes and goes about her daily routine inside. The man also comes and goes but eventually posts a letter through the door. She picks it up, reads it, writes a reply, seals the envelope, brushes away what might be a stray hair or a fly, then leaves.

Each succeeding Fit extends the background to the action: the man and woman have been lovers in Lerna in Greece, the site of the Mysteries of Io; something scares them; the gods have awoken and the story of Io is performed. Eventually the fly - the gadfly which Hera inflicted on Io - transfers itself to the man and the piece ends.

I have to say that this is by no means a full account of a very complex piece - it stops, in fact, in the middle of Fit 3 and jumps to the end of Fit 7! - but it does give a flavour of the form.

Alison Chitty's set - a realisation of exactly what Birtwistle wanted - consists of a outline box which encloses the stage area, a wall which, on stage left, is the inside of the woman's house and, right, the outside. There is a door and a window, with a blind: inside there is a table and chair, plus an armchair and coffee table, and outside a streetlamp. When the woman raises or lowers the blind inside the house, we see her doing it from the outside. When the man posts a letter through the letterbox from outside, we see it arrive inside. It's all cleverly - and accurately - done.

The gradual unfolding of the story through repetition has a mesmerising effect, drawing the audience into the dream (or, rather, nightmare) world so that the story of the man and the woman takes on mythic proportions and what seems on the surface to be something simple becomes complex, disturbing, an exploration of the darker side of the psyche. Fascinating!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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