Monday 5 May 2008

Review of The Minotaur

In their new opera, The Minotaur (seen at Covent Garden on 3rd May 2008) Sir Harrison Birtwistle and David Harsent's take on the minotaur myth concentrates on just 3 main characters Ariadne (Christine Rice), Theseus (Johann Reuter) and the Minotaur (Sir John Tomlinson). The opera opens with Ariadne wandering along the sea short, seeing the black sail of the ship from Athens bearing the Innocents who will be sacrificed to the Minotaur.

Throughout the opera Ariadne is our guide and narrator, she appears in all but 1 scene, even appearing to the Minotaur in his dreams. As a result, Ariadne is a huge part, a challenge to which Rice rose magnificently. As the opera opens Birtwistle under scores Ariadne's vocal line with a rich dark palette of orchestral sound, challenging the singer by the sheer volume of the orchestra. Though at times Rice got a surprising amount of the text over, I was glad that we had surtitles. Ariadne's vocal line, whilst never melodic, was always expressive and sympathetic to the voice.

The volume and the amplitude of the orchestral sound was almost like a beast itself, under control and often quiescent and quiet, but constantly threatening to overwhelm the singers. Birtwistle's orchestral palette was large, with lots of percussion, giving vivid and rich orchestral images.

The Innocents when they arrived were all high voiced, sopranos and altos including two counter-tenors, the vocal writing for them rendering them as a group, rather than individuals.

Reuter's Theseus was blunt and direct. He had no time for Ariadne's evasions and even less desire to take her back to Athens with him. Reuter's diction was rather compromised by his accent.

The opera is built around cycles of 3. Ariadne asks Theseus 3 times to take her to Athens and only succeeds the 3rd time. 3 Times Theseus insists he go into the labyrinth, but only succeeds the third time. There are 3 scenes in which the Minotaur attacks people in the labyrinth (first 1 Innocent, then the remaining Innocents, then Theseus himself). After each attack the Minotaur gains the power of speech. The first 2 times in dreams than then as he lays dying. Birtwistle and Harsent have created out of this a strong narrative sense which propels the opera along. This was helped by Alison Chitty's strong and flexible designs, flooding the stage with Mediterranean sun in contrast to the dark of the labyrinth.

John Tomlinson's Minotaur wore a horned bulls head, so that depending on the lighting we see just a bull's head or glimpse the man's head within. When in the labyrinth the Minotaur was inarticulate, communicating only in roars. This Bull was a real farmyard bull rather than one of the elegant ones seen in statues. The disadvantage of the mask was that we never saw Tomlinson's face properly.

From his body language he seemed to be an old bull, tired and irritable as well as fearsome. The scenes in the labyrinth where he slaughtered the Innocents were inevitably violent and gory (in a stylised way), but Stephen Langridge staged them brilliantly. Stylised movement and some gore complementing the violence of Birtwistle's score. Each time the slaughter concluded with the descent of the screaming Keres, evil creatures who evisicerate and eat the corpses. So the final, shocking, image of the opera is not the reunited Ariadne and Theseus, but a single Ker triumphantly crowing over the body of the Minotaur.

And after each slaughter the Minotaur dreams, in dreams he has language and holds a dialogue with his reflection, pondering what it means to be half man, half beast.

Ariadne starts the 3rd cycle off by visiting the oracle (Andrew Watts). Here with the help of the priest (Philip Langridge) she comes up with the idea of the twine to show Theseus the way out of the Labyrinth.

Though the final cycle concludes with Theseus killing the Minotaur, Harsent and Birtwistle make it clear that though Theseus will leave Crete with Ariadne, thus fulfilling the letter of his promise, she will not reach Athens. There is no romantic conclusion.

Birtwistle's score is dramatic and violent but with many beautiful passages. It is difficult to do it justice on just one hearing. The Royal Opera Orchestra played magnificently under Antonio Pappano, conjuring up Birtwistle's remarkable sound world.

We were at the last performance, which was full with a queue for returns. The audience was remarkably enthusiastic about the work and gave Birtwistle and Harsent an ovation when they appeared on stage at the end. The opera is being recorded for DVD but I do hope that it reoccurs on the Royal Opera House stage.

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