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The work opens with Orpheus gently calling Eurydice by name, while the twelve ensemble voices start to sing Boethius’s poem, in Latin. Eurydice calls back to Orpheus in elaborate high melismas, but Hades calls him at the same time: the high soprano and the low bass simultaneously suggesting the two different directions in which Orpheus will be pulled. For a while Hades falls silent, and Orpheus and Eurydice call to each other across the choral textures of the poem; presently Hades re-joins them, and utters his warning to Orpheus to lead Eurydice out of Hell but not to look back at her until they have passed the gates. Not only is this the crux of all versions of the Orpheus myth, but the turning point—or peripeteia—is a key formal principle in Birtwistle’s works, even those not dealing directly with the myth. The work has a turning point of its own, with the four soloists absorbed into the choir for the central cry of ‘Quis legem …’ (‘Who makes the law for lovers? Love is his own greater law’). After this the discourse is split again, in texture but now in language too: the four soloists begin to narrate Orpheus’s awful mistake in Waddell’s English (‘On the sheer threshold of the night Orpheus saw Eurydice, looked, and destroyed her’) while the basses stammer out the same lines in Latin. Eurydice again sings out to Orpheus, but now desperate, beyond help, finally inaudible. Orpheus continues to repeat her name too, but in a separate space, unanswered, perhaps just as a memory rather than an address, while the choir voice the poem’s Latin moral, which then at the close is taken up by Hades in Waddell’s English paraphrase.
from notes by John Fallas © 2014