The Royal Opera – The Minotaur

The Minotaur – Opera in two parts to a libretto by David Harsent [Commissioned by The Royal Opera: World premiere]

The Minotaur – John Tomlinson
Ariadne – Christine Rice
Theseus – Johan Reuter
Ker – Amanda Echalaz
Hiereus – Philip Langridge
Snake Priestess – Andrew Watts
First Innocent – Rebecca Bottone
Second Innocent – Pumeza Matschikiza
Third Innocent – Wendy Dawn Thompson
Fourth Innocent – Christopher Ainslie
Fifth Innocent – Tim Mead

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Stephen Langridge – Director
Alison Chitty – Designs
Paul Pyant – Lighting design
Philippe Giraudeau – Choreography
Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer – Video designs

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 15 April, 2008
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Sir John Tomlinson as The Minotaur. ©Bill CooperEveryone is trapped – one way or another – in Harrison Birtwistle’s latest opera, “The Minotaur”, which here received its world premiere. The Innocents are trapped within a journey that will result in their violent deaths. Theseus is trapped within a quandary as to whether he should assume the mantle of ‘hero’ and, through so doing, avenge the ambiguity of his birthright. Ariadne is trapped on an island where the failings of her parents are brought home every time that she witnesses her half-brother engaging in wanton destruction. The Minotaur itself is trapped not only within the confines of a labyrinth in which he must destroy those before him, but also within that of a body which – half-man and half-human – allows him to intuit but not to experience human emotions. A dysfunction that Birtwistle does not so much explore as present from various perspectives over a drama whose progress to its destination is, in all senses, as inevitable as it is unrelenting.

As in almost all of his stage-works, myth is used not as a narrative but as a framework for events that throw up timeless metaphors in abundance. A music-drama in which so much is inferred rather than stated requires a relatively concrete libretto, and there can be little doubt David Harsent has provided one; at least compared with that to Birtwistle’s “Gawain”, the decorous and literary elements have been pared down to leave a streamlined text that propels the concept forward with a fluid and ongoing momentum – in the process, encouraging Birtwistle to a keener dramatic focus than in any of his previous large-scale operatic works. Thus there is no sense in which certain portions might be thought parenthetical or unnecessary within the context of the whole: every scene here is no more or no less significant in its relevance, ensuring a cohesion shared by few operas of comparable scale during the post-war era. If this is to be Birtwistle’s final such work, then it is a worthy culmination.

A scene from The Minotaur. ©Bill CooperAs a production, too, it is way in advance of any new opera seen in London during this past decade. No stranger to Birtwistle’s dramaturgy, Stephen Langridge has conceived a staging that reflects its basis in ritual and legend, while subtly underlining that human predicament which, as is customary with this composer, comes over in spite of itself; pointing up an expressive dimension that the music does not – indeed, is not there to – convey. Scenes on the Naxos shore are simply but evocatively rendered – only the head of a Minotaur effigy on a strip of sand indicating ‘what lies beneath’, while those within the labyrinth move between public forum (the human sacrifices an oblique reminder of the role played by public execution right through to the present) and private sanctuary with ease.

Alison Chitty’s sets evoke the trappings of a classical civilisation without compromise to their essential (and necessary) abstraction, while Paul Pyant’s lighting vividly conveys the open expanses of an Aegean island and claustrophobic confines of the labyrinth – enhanced by Philippe Giraudeau’s graphic choreography (the climactic fight sequence between Theseus and the Minotaur is the more potent for its relative brevity) together with video designs (courtesy of Fifty Nine Productions) that, in such as the establishing of an oceanic context and also the Minotaur’s tenuous nocturnal imagining of a human experience in which he too might once have shared, fulfil their function effortlessly.

Rebecca Bottone as the First Innocent and Sir John Tomlinson as The Minotaur. ©Bill CooperThe performance is dominated by John Tomlinson’s Minotaur. Whether in the graphic roaring of his inarticulateness, his speculative musings while asleep, or the pathos-ridden arioso of his monologue in the process of dying, this is a role made for his voice and it is hard to imagine it being rendered more convincingly. Christine Rice is no less fine as Ariadne, a hapless figure intent on escaping from her island prison and for whom the liaison with Theseus is purely one of convenience. That said, this is the most eloquent female role Birtwistle has yet conceived, and Rice does it full justice. So, too, does Johan Reuter that of Theseus – doubtful whether the role of hero is worth the cost and willing to drive a hard bargain with Ariadne that he has no intention of keeping. Ardent but not overbearing, his singing lacks little in clarity of enunciation: make no mistake, this is an opera in which the words are audible almost all of the time (though surtitles are provided). Amanda Echalaz is excellent as the briefly self-doubting Ker, and there are magnetic cameos by Philip Langridge (father of Stephen) as the oracle Hiereus and Andrew Watts as the Snake Priestess whose OTT demeanour just momentarily steals the show.

Although he had not conducted a new opera during his tenure thus far at The Royal Opera, Antonio Pappano’s track-record in Brussels speaks for itself and there can be no doubting his identity with Birtwistle’s idiom. Whether in the percussion-driven onslaughts of climactic passages, or those when an overarching melodic line binds the texture with fastidious understatement, Pappano’s judgement as to what needs to be heard can hardly be faulted – nor can the playing of The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House (cimbalom and saxophone often inventively to the fore), which takes those challenges thrown at it well within its collective stride. The Royal Opera Chorus renders Birtwistle’s panoply of techniques with unsparing theatricality.

So, no downside in what is a finely-conceived and superbly-realised production? Only that, for all its formidable conviction, the work conveys little, if anything, that Birtwistle has not adumbrated in his previous stage-works. Perhaps the very consistency of his approach this past quarter-century has meant that, in common with his protagonists, he has become trapped in a musico-dramatic labyrinth of his own devising – with no new ground to break and only previously explored terrain to refashion. If suchis the case, then “The Minotaur” is not just a worthy culmination but also a natural point of conclusion.

  • Further performances on 19 April at 7 p.m. and 21, 25, 30 April & 3 May at 7.30 p.m.
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 31 May at 6.30 p.m.
  • BBC Radio 3

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