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The Mask of Orpheus is an opera with music by Harrison Birtwistle and a libretto by Peter Zinovieff. It was premiered in London on May 21, 1986 to great critical acclaim. A recorded version conducted by Andrew Davis has also received good reviews. The work is around three hours long.


The structure of the opera's plot is complex. Rather than telling a story by starting at A and going through B to C, The Mask of Orpheus explores the Orpheus myth in a number of directions at once, examining the various contradictions which are in the various versions of the myth.

This is done by a very elaborate stage design, whereby the stage is divided into a number of different areas, each containing its own part of the action. In addition, each of the major characters - Orpheus, Euridice and Aristaeus - appear in three forms: as a singer who represents their human forms; as a mime, representing their heroic selves; and as a puppet, representing their myths. Also, individual events may occur within the opera on several occasions, as they are being predicted, as they happen, and as they are being remembered.

An example of this process in action is the seduction of Euridice by Aristaeus. When first seen in Act I, this event is shown simultaneously in two different versions: in one, Euridice is raped by Aristaeus before dying; in the other she is not. Later, in Act II, Orpheus remembers this event, but now it is Orpheus, not Aristaeus, who is seducing Euridice before her death.

Because of the complex structure of the work, it is difficult to provide a detailed synopsis. However, the opera's story might be broadly said to be as follows:

Act I - Orpheus and Euridice fall in love and marry. Euridice later dies from a snake bite, and Orpheus consults the Oracle of the Dead, intending to follow her to the Underworld.

Act II - Orpheus journeys to the Underworld through seventeen arches, each with a symbolic name. On his journey back, he believes Euridice is following him, but it is actually Persephone and the mime Euridice. Orpheus goes back for Euridice but realises she cannot follow him. Orpheus hangs himself. The act ends with Orpheus waking up, realising that his journey to the Underworld was a dream.

Act III - At the start of this act, time is moving backwards: Orpheus travels back out of and into the Underworld, and Euridice dies once more. Then time moves forwards as Orpheus leaves the Underworld again. One version of Orpheus is then killed by a thunderbolt thrown by Zeus, while another is dismembered by the women of Dionysus. Orpheus then becomes the subject of a cult and an oracle. Time flows backwards once more, and Orpheus' death is acted out again, and the opera ends with the Orpheus myth decaying.

The music

The Mask of Orpheus, in addition to vocal and orchestral music, contains a significant amount of electronic music, (which was realized on Birtwistle's behalf by Barry Anderson). Each act has its own electronic "aura", which goes on continuously, sometimes prominently, sometimes inaudibly; the voice of Apollo is heard on several occasions as an electronic sound "speaking" in an invented language. These electronic sounds were made by Anderson in Paris at IRCAM.

There are also six purely electronic interludes, arguably some of the finest electronic music ever written, created by computer manipulation of harp sounds.

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