The Ring Dance of the Nazarene
was not Birtwistle’s first engagement with the story of the Last Supper. Four years earlier his opera on the subject, to a libretto by the Canadian poet Robin Blaser, had departed from Biblical orthodoxy in a different way, using a female character called Ghost to mediate between the historical setting and our present day and to question the story’s contemporary meaning. The Three Latin Motets
were composed for that opera, although they function within it not as part of the drama but as interludes, accompanying three ‘Visions’—still tableaux that in the opera’s first Glyndebourne production were staged as reconstructions of paintings by Zurbarán. Scored for a six-part a cappella choir (three voices per part) which in the first motet is further subdivided into shifting combinations of single and paired voices, they were further separated from the action by being pre-recorded (there are no male voices in the opera’s on-stage chorus). Their texts, too, are separate, not part of Blaser’s libretto but drawn from a fourteenth-century prayer and from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas: canonical Latin texts, then, all set for example by Palestrina, and treated by Birtwistle in a style which if not strictly polyphonic seems designed to evoke the aura of Renaissance sacred music. As placed in the opera, they trace the story of Christ’s Passion in reverse, beginning with a prayer to the crucified Christ and moving through the Stations of the Cross to the Last Supper itself, the night of Christ’s betrayal (when the action of the opera also ends).
from notes by John Fallas © 2014