Friday, 18 January 2013

The Minotaur at Covent Garden

John Tomlinson as The Minotaur (c) Bill Cooper/ROH 2008
John Tomlinson as The Minotaur
(c) Bill Cooper/ROH 2008
Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Minotaur, which premiered at Covent Garden in 2008, has returned for a second run again with John Tomlinson in the title role, with both Christine Rice and Johan Reuter repeating their roles as Ariadnes and Theseus, with Ryan Wigglesworth conducting and Stephen Langridge returning to direct. We caught the first night on 17 January 2013 (the seventh performance of the opera at Covent Garden) The performance celebrated John Tomlinson's 35 years performing at the Royal Opera House. Returning to the opera, it retains its enormous power and an ability to shock.

Birtwistle uses a huge orchestra, which filled the Covent Garden pit as well as overflowing into the Stalls Circle. There was a huge battery of percussion, including a cimbalom with which Birtwistle creates a noticeable and exotic effect. But his writing is far subtler than the forces might lead you to expect, this is not an opera where your ears are constantly assaulted. The long sections of arioso, particularly for Ariadne, are beautifully and carefully written so that Christine Rice was able to project lyrically. The opera is divided into ten scenes and in between each there is an orchestral interlude, with these representing some of the finest music in the opera as Birtwistle explores the themes in the opera.


Unusually for Birtwistle, the basic plot of the piece is linear and relatively straightforward (for those unfamiliar with it, there is a nice summary on Wikipedia). But Birtwistle's obsessions with repeating structures still applies, and the lead characters return, Wagner-like, to the same themes. Both Ariadne (Christine Rice) and the Minotaur (John Tomlinson) are caged in some way, with the Minotaur trapped physically in the maze and Ariadne feeling trapped by her circumstances on Crete with the betrayal by her mother in mating with a bull to create the Minotaur.

None of the characters are particularly loveable. Reuter's Theseus is rather stiff backed and full of his duty, but even he allows himself to be seduced by Rice's Ariadne, promising to take her on-board his ship when he leaves. David Harsent's libretto is careful to emphasise that he promises she should leave Crete, but not that he will deliver her to Athens. We all know that Theseus will deposit her on Naxos (cue Richard Strauss's opera), whilst Theseus's life will eventually lead to the tragedy of his second wife Phaedra (cue Racine's play). 

Rice's Ariadne is a tragic figure, trapped in Crete and obsessively going over past events. The focus of the first two thirds of the opera is very much on Ariadne, and Rice was magnificent in her creation, statuesque and not a little voluptuous. But Ariadne's angular vocal lines, with their circling round awkward intervals and interpolated low notes, show the she is not completely ordinary. Whilst Langridge's production attempted to humanise Ariadne a bit, giving her a seduction scene with Theseus, Birtwistle's music firmly leaves the character in the realm of the mythic. 

Perhaps this could be seen as a weakness in the opera, but Birtwistle has always been interested in myth and ritual, so we should not expect him suddenly to write the musical equivalent of East Enders. Instead, we can appreciate the magnificence of the creation, both Birtwistle's music and Rice's stupendous performances. For much of the opera is dependent on her monologues; placed firmly downstage, communicating easily and directly with the audience, she was terrific, sculpting Birtwisle's lines as if out of granite and giving no sign that this might be difficult, contemporary music. 

The Minotaur, half man and half bull, cannot talk so that in the scenes in the bull ring where he fights and kills the Athenian Innocents, all he can do is moan but John Tomlinson did this so expressively that one felt neither the lack of words nor the fact that his face was covered by the huge bull head-piece.

But after each round in the ring, the Minotaur sleeps and the human half comes to the fore, he can talk and Ariadne appears to him in dreams, he also dimly sees Theseus behind Ariadne. This disturbs him, and there is a moment in the second half, when Theseus is fighting the Minotaur that you become aware that the Minotaur has recognised Theseus and recognises his death, welcoming it. In death, the Minotaur's human part comes to the fore and he can talk. Birtwistle finishes the opera not with a celebratory Theseus and Ariadne, but with a long death scene for the Minotaur, consciously basing it on the death of Boris from Boris Goudonov, a role with which Tomlinson is much associated.

The fights in the bull ring were done in a stylised manner, but with plenty of blood, a chorus baying for action round the edges of the ring, and a pair of on-stage groups of timpani. The results were dramatic, and not a little disturbing. But the most disturbing element was Birtwistle and Harsent's decision to introduce the Keres,  the female death spirits who feed on dead and dying men. Here represented as half woman, half crow they were genuinely terrifying, their vocal lines consisting of shouting and shrieking as well as singing. Elisabeth Meister was truly scary as the lead Ker, with an amazing repertoire of shrieks. It is her image, standing over the body of the Minotaur and howling, that we were left with at the end of the piece.

I thought perhaps that Tomlinson's performance as the Minotaur was a little less protean than in 2008, in the ring his fighting took on a weary quality as if the bull was tiring of his role. But in the two dream sequences and the long death scene, Tomlinson was remarkable, creating a richly subtle performance and using his voice and his amazing qualities of projection to communicate as if he were singing Puccini. 

Andrew Watts and Alan Oke were the Snake Priestess and Hiereus, whom Ariadne consulted in her quest to find a way for Theseus to fight the Minotaur and return. The Innocents, who are fed to the Minotaur in the first half, were Susana Gaspar, Nadine Lingston, Jusina Gringyte, James Laing and William Towers. All contributed strong, confident performances forming part of what was a remarkable ensemble.

Ryan Wigglesworth conducted capably in the pit, completely in charge, seemingly oblivious to the complexities of the score and getting playing of rich subtlety from the Royal Opera House orchestra.

This was a magnificent achievement for all concerned and a tribute to the Royal Opera House that they brought the opera back. The house seemed almost full, with an enthusiastic audience notable for its diversity. Birtwistle's music is striking for its power, and with performances of the calibre of those from Tomlinson, Rice and the cast, you felt that, quite remarkably, something in this opera had touched and attracted people.

Afterwards, a cake was brought onto the stage and there were speeches from Tony Hall and Antonio Pappano, congratulating John Tomlinson for his achieving 35 years at the opera house (and performing there in 33 of them), contributing a remarkable string of roles. Tomlinson himself, speaking without a microphone and projecting effortlessly, was gracious whilst amusingly derailing the possibility that the event might turn into This is Your Life.

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