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The Io Passion review at Almeida London

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There can be few operatic scenarios more contemporary than a passionate bedroom encounter during a holiday in Greece but Harrison Birtwistle’s new chamber opera The Io Passion, here receiving its London premiere, links the present with the ancient past by its assimilation of the Greek myth of Io.

By the beginning of the opera the couple’s relationship is over, their only communication by letter. The man delivers a missive to the woman, which wakes her from her sleep. She writes a reply while he waits constantly outside her door.

The set shows both the exterior and interior of the woman’s house, with the movements of the man and woman eerily mirrored by doubles. By repetition, these humdrum acts are elevated into ritual, playing out alongside music – for string quartet and bassett clarinet – of crushing plangency, which at the same time manages to acknowledge hard events such as the opening of the window blind or the letter dropping through the letterbox.

As the seven cycles progress, we become more embedded in the Io myth. As the woman sleeps, masked characters play out the story in which Zeus seduces Io and is then afflicted by a gadfly, set upon her by Zeus’ jealous wife Hera. Myth and reality gradually converge, leading to a bizarrely escalated climax during which the man (Zeus) is transformed into the woman (Io) and inherits the affliction of the gadfly.

This climax shunted absorbing, latent strangeness into the world of sharp surrealism. Despite this, The Io Passion is a brilliantly conceived hybrid of music and theatre, with sheerly beautiful playing by the Quatuor Diotima and clarinettist/music director Alan Hacker.

Production Information

Almeida, London , July 6, 7, 9, 10

Harrison Birtwistle
Stephen Langridge
Aldeburgh Almeida Opera
Cast includes
Teresa Banham, Claire Booth, Amy Freston, Sam McElroy, Joseph Alessi, Richard Morris
Running time
1hr 35mins

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