Movement 1: Prologue 'In May, in brilliant Athens'
Movement 2: Recitative 'My lost and dazzled eyes'
Movement 3: Presto 'You monster!'
Movement 4: Recitative 'Oh Gods of wrath'
Movement 5: Adagio 'My time's too short'
Taking his cue from Handel, Britten restricted the orchestra to strings; but he added percussion, and incorporated a ‘continuo’ of solo cello and harpsichord. The structure of the work was also articulated in an eighteenth-century manner as a sequence of recitatives and arias. The text is drawn from Robert Lowell’s verse translation of Racine’s Phèdre. Britten had met Lowell in New York in 1969, and the American poet travelled to Snape to attend the triumphant first performance of Phaedra in June 1976 at the Aldeburgh Festival of that year, the last that Britten was to attend.
Like so many of Britten’s operatic characters, Phaedra may be seen as an outcast at odds with the society in which she finds herself. The Apollonian A major of the work’s opening (to be compared with Death in Venice, 1973), ‘In May, in brilliant Athens’, marks from the outset the restrained clarity of the cantata’s idiom. As ‘Medea’s poison’ courses through Phaedra’s veins, so Britten’s orchestral texture grows in dynamics and textural richness (divided strings throughout), gradually rising – like the poison in her body – from lower to upper strings. It is only by way of her death, by this annihilating ascension, that Phaedra finally achieves the ‘purity’ signified by a Brittenesque C major that has eluded her in life.
from notes by Philip Reed © 1996