Commissioned by Aldeburgh Festival and Almeida Opera

  • 1(pic,afl,bfl)1(ca)2(bcl:cbcl)1/2200/perc/
  • 2 Baritones, Bass, Contralto, 3 Mezzo Sopranos, 4 Sopranos, Tenor
  • 2 hr
  • David Lan, after Euripides
  • English

Programme Note


Ion is the story of a mother’s pain and grief, of a son lost and found and a timeless quest for truth, honesty and identity. Creusa, daughter of the King of Athens, searches for her abandoned son, the issue of an illicit liaison with Apollo. Accompanied by the women who are all too ready to rail against the injustices served upon their mistress, Creusa seeks guidance from the oracle, only to be cheated once again. Unwittingly she tries to kill the child she once left to die; in revenge, he attempts to kill her. Mother and son are eventually revealed to one another through an eleventh-hour intervention by Apollo's priestess, the Pythia. The goddess Athene arrives, with her calming influence, to pacify the mortals, maintaining one further deception.


The opera takes place at Apollo's shrine at Delphi.

Ion, the young caretaker of the shrine, greets Creusa the queen of Athens. Childless, she has come with her husband Xuthus to ask the oracle if she will ever give birth. She also has another motive. Years before she had been impregnated by the god Apollo. Terrified of the consequences, she abandoned the child. Now she believes that her infertility is a punishment for her heartlesness. Full of self-recrimination and anger with Apollo, she wants to know if there is any chance that her long lost son is still alive.

Publicly Ion denies that the god would ever behave so irresponsibly. In his heart he knows that this story is all too likely.

Xuthus enters the shrine and is informed that the first person he sees as he leaves will be his son. He chances to see Ion, claims him, and encourages him to return with him to Athens. After much persuasion, Ion accepts that what the oracle pronounces must be true. Xuthus arranges a feast to celebrate his joy.

Accompanied by her old Servant, Creusa learns that Xuthus has been given a child while she is to get nothing. She is overwhelmed by grief. The Servant spurs her to take revenge. Together they lay plans to kill Ion.

At the feast, by a happy chance, Ion discovers that his celebratory cup of wine is poisoned. When tortured, the Servant admits that Creusa is the culprit. Ion threatens to kill her but, just in time, the Pythia who tends the oracle, reveals the basket in which Ion, when an infant, was brought to the temple. Creusa recognises it as her own. Ion is her long lost son.

When he realises that Apollo is his father Ion is delighted but also puzzled. Apollo had said that Xuthus was his father. If a god lies, argues Ion, how can we ever know the truth? The goddess Athene arrives and insists that Apollo was in no way trying to cover up his own misdeeds. He had given Ion to Xuthus for his own good, to make him heir to a royal house.

Accepting his good fortune and deeply moved to be reunited with his mother, Ion sets out for Athens.


About twelve years ago the Almeida Theatre asked me to translate (i.e. prepare a version of, working from someone else’s literal translation - I speak no Greek) a play: Hippolytos by Euripides. It was the first such ‘translation’ I’d attempted. I had such an exhilarating time doing it - so much more fun than writing one’s own play - that when I got to the end I kept going and ‘translated’ a third of another play before that burst of energy gave out.

I’d known this other play for ages. At first reading I’d known, with that unshakable knowledge that comes rarely, thrillingly and profoundly, that it was a masterpiece. I longed to do something with it before anyone else tumbled to it. But what? For where? For who? That first third of Ion lay around for a good year before my lover Nick, happened to mention that he was looking for a play to direct at the National Theatre Studio. Ion is the perfect gift between lovers. I finished the translation for him.

After the Studio production, Nick did a second version for the Royal Shakespeare Company and my ‘version’ was published. Param Vir, at the time living in America, had himself lighted on Ion and, like me, become convinced that he should do something with it. After reading other translations and versions, he came across a copy of mine.

Over the years, the Almeida had suggested to me other composers for whom I might write libretti. For one reason or another, I had resisted these offers. As soon as I met PV, though I hadn’t heard a note of his music, I knew that this was one I would do. He had seen in the play precisely what I had, that this apparently simple, even whimsical fable-like play pulsates with deeper and more resonant love that any other I have come across. Love of a child for its mother, love of a mother for her son, love of an artist for his craft, love of a civilisation for its highest achievements - wherever you look in it there is wisdom and love.

To transform Euripides’ play first into my ‘version’ and then into a libretto I know that I inflicted many deep wounds on this most delicate of plays. I trust and believe that PV’s music has healed them. He has done what a ‘translator’ can never hope to do: honour a work of art by creating a totally new one. I hope you will come to love Ion the story, the play, the opera as much as we do.


From Delhi to Delphi: Mary Miller talks to Param Vir about his new opera

In Param Vir’s study, illustrated shards of paper decorate the walls. Everywhere, in shades of pencil, tiny swatches of colour, fragments of musical line, is the ephemera of a process, evidence of a journey towards the opera Ion.

Param Vir’s own voyage has been remarkable. His first experience of music in his native Delhi was the Blue Danube Waltz, played on the park bandstand. Despite his mother’s skill as a singer of Indian classical music, Vir was intent on a career in Western music, a path unprecedented in his homeland. Then the London Symphony Orchestra visited Delhi. Vir had read about the teenage composer, his exact contemporary, Oliver Knussen; now he met his father, then LSO principal bass, and consequently developed a vivid imaginary friendship with Knussen junior.

After dogged and somewhat isolated study, Vir traveled to Britain where, with encouragement from Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, he found himself in the company of some of the most highly developed musical minds and practitioners of the 1980’s at Darlington Summer School. Funding was found to allow him to stay, and a teacher arranged; as though to tidy this transformation, the teacher turned out to be Oliver Knussen.

The possibility of the individual transforming himself, in order to transform society, has become a fundemental preoccupation of Vir’s work. He proselytizes on behalf of no particular point of view, and the idea, of importing a religious line or any specifically ‘Asian’ flavour to his music would appal him. As he says, ‘I’m concerned with understanding what happens to people, how we deal with evil, with issues of self-knowledge, with the notion of change and that journey.’

The plot of Ion tells how Creusa, Queen of Athens, rediscovers her son, the infant abandoned at birth after being conceived during an illicit encounter with Apollo. After poison attempts, misunderstandings and swervings of joy to grief, mother and child are ecstatically united. Themes of goodness, healing, redemption and famial love, the fierce preoccupations which suffice all Vir’s work, soar through the story. ‘The unexamined life’ he says ‘is not worth living.’ So the music is brilliantly explorative. Ion’s climbing motifs enflame David Lan’s eloquent libretto; the arias are more glowing declamations where the phrases flex with tension and sigh with its release. As Ion and his mother first meet, oblivious to each other’s identity, we are aware that ultimately they will find resolution. Emotions juxtapose, moments of violent theatre surfing on music of ticking serenity. Vir had long been fascinated by Euripides play, ‘But,’ he recalls, ‘my original preoccupation intensified on reading David Lan’s translation in 1995. I loved the economy of his words, and the pointing up of gentle humour. And Lan’s language is ever elegant, but so modern. The exchanges between mother and son have tremendous delicacy: there’s the sense of a great heart beating through the relationships. But what overwhelms me is the story’s magical resolution, when child and mother reunite.’ And Vir identifies keenly with the character of Ion: ‘He refuses to acknowledge authority, always questions and seeks answers in real-life situations. He constantly demands a response from the Gods. There is a timbre of irony in how he expresses his journeying.’

Vir’s planning of the score is an extraordinary mix of rigorous intellect, structural annotation and emotional instinct. The devising of pattern and template may be mathematically precise; the solution though, is always musical. ‘You must let the music talk to the body,’ Vir says. ‘If a composer is not moved to weep by his own material, how can he expect it to affect his audience?’ His preparation involves a scrupulous assembly of templates: on the one hand, ‘energy’ templates which manifest themselves as vivid whorls and snaking lines which dissolve into whisp-like traces; and ‘rhythmic’ versions, more tightly organized.

These culminate in a map of the work, a beautiful object in itself, with washes of colour denoting arias, a different hue for each character, and with clear lines showing the path of recitative. Under this tapestry, which shows how music and theatre will interplay, tiny hieroglyphics indicate where sounds will hocket between wind and strings, or show what Vir calls a ‘timberal interlock’, where a vivid flourish swerves between different groups of instruments.

Vir also devises ‘taals’, the chaconne-like patterns at the root of Indian composition, which may underpin long stretches of recitative, almost as a continuo; but again, the use of a mechanical structure is balanced with an instinctive feel for musical fluency. The assimilation of an Asian formula is purely pragmatic. For Vir, pastiche is abhorrent: ‘In truth, I’m affected by everything. At a fine concert, where there is a real energy, you sense your own music as a counterpoint, but if the music is formed from your own deep energy, it can have its own integrity.

Interview from The Full Score, Spring 2000


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