Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Saint Louis Butterfly Soars

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis knew to trust the surefire potential of Madame Butterfly, and pretty much stayed out of its way.

Saint Louis: Gordon’s Revised Grapes

If opera is to remain a viable, accessible 21st century art form, it will be largely owing to the commitment of visionary companies like Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Titus Lightens Up in Saint Louis

Mozart’s opera seria, La Clemenza di Tito, performed in English at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis did something I did not think possible.

Il turco in Italia: Garsington Opera

Martin Duncan's production of Rossini's Il turco in Italia debuted in 2011, only the second production to be performed in Garsington Opera's then new home at Wormsley. Revived for the first time on 25 June 2017, David Parry was again conducting with Quirijn de Lang as Selim, Geoffrey Dolton as Don Geronio and Mark Stone as Prosdocimo returning to their roles, plus Sarah Tynan as Fiorilla, Katie Bray as Zaide, Luciano Botelho as Narciso and Jack Swanson as Albazar. Designs were by Francis O'Connor, with lighting by Mark Jonathan and movement by Nick Winston.

Glyndebourne's wartime Ariadne auf Naxos

It’s country-house opera season, and Glyndebourne have decided it’s time for a return of Katharina Thoma’s country-house-set Ariadne auf Naxos, first seen in 2013. Thoma locates Strauss’s opera-about-opera in a 1940s manor house which has been sequestered as a military hospital, neatly alluding to Glyndebourne’s own history when it transformed itself into a centre for evacuees from east London and the Christie children’s nursery became a sick bay.

On Trial in Saint Louis

That Opera Theatre of Saint Louis fearlessly embraces the cutting edge is once again evidenced by their compelling American premiere of The Trial.

A Traditional Rigoletto in Las Vegas

On June 9, 2017, Opera Las Vegas presented a traditional production of Verdi’s Rigoletto conducted by Music Director Gregory Buchalter with a cast headed by veteran baritone Michael Chioldi. A most convincing Rigoletto, Chioldi was a man in psychological pain from the begining of the opera. His fear and his vulnerability to the whims of the nobility were evident in every meaty, well-colored phrase he sang.

Thumbprint, An Amazing Woman Leaves an Indelible Mark

Thumbprint is the story of the young, innocent and illiterate Mukhtar Mai who was assaulted by a group of powerful men. Following the attack, Mukhtar, having supposedly been disgraced, was expected to commit suicide. Instead, she amazed everyone who knew her by going to the police and calling for the arrest of her attackers.

Kaufmann's first Otello: Royal Opera House, London

Out of the blackness, Keith Warner’s new production of Verdi’s Otello explodes into being with a violent gesture of fury. Not the tempest raging in the pit - though Antonio Pappano conjures a terrifying maelstrom from the ROH Orchestra and the enlarged ROH Chorus hurls a blood-curdling battering-ram of sound into the auditorium. Rather, Warner offers a spot-lit emblem of frustrated malice and wrath, as a lone soldier fiercely hurls a Venetian mask to the ground.

Don Carlo in Marseille

First mounted in 2015 at the Opéra National de Bordeaux this splendid Don Carlo production took stage just now at the Opéra de Marseille with a completely different cast and conductor. This Marseille edition achieved an artistic stature rarely found hereabouts, or anywhere.

Diamanda Galás: Savagery and Opulence

Unconventional to the last, Diamanda Galás tore through her Barbican concert on Monday evening with a torrential force that shattered the inertia and passivity of the modern song recital. This was operatic activism, pure and simple. Dressed in metallic, shimmering black she moved rather stately across the stage to her piano - but there was nothing stately about what unfolded during the next 90 minutes.

Schubert Wanderer Songs - Florian Boesch, Wigmore Hall

A summit reached at the end of a long journey: Florian Boesch and Malcolm Martineau at the Wigmore Hall, as the two-year Complete Schubert Song series draws to a close. Unmistakably a high point in the whole traverse. A well-planned programme of much-loved songs performed exceptionally well, with less well known repertoire presented with intelligent flourish.

La Bohème in San Francisco

In 2008 it was the electrifying conducting of Nicola Luisotti and the famed Mimì of Angela Gheorghiu, in 2014 it was the riveting portrayals of Michael Fabbiano’s Rodolfo and Alexey Markov’s Marcelo. Now, in 2017, it is the high Italian style of Erika Grimaldi’s Mimì — and just about everything else!

A heart-rending Jenůfa at Grange Park Opera

Katie Mitchell’s 1998 Welsh National Opera production of Janáček’s first mature opera, Jenůfa, is a good choice for Grange Park Opera’s first season at its new home, West Horsley Place. Revived by Robin Tebbutt, Mitchell and designer Vicki Mortimer’s 1930s urban setting emphasises the opera’s lack of sentimentality and subjectivism, and this stark realism is further enhanced by the narrow horseshoe design of architect Wasfi Kani’s ‘Theatre in the Woods’ whose towering walls and narrow width seem to add further to the weight of oppression which constricts the lives of the inhabitants.

Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera

“I am nearer to the greatest secrets of the next world than I am to the smallest secrets of those eyes!” So despairs Golaud, enflamed by jealousy, suspicious of his mysterious wife Mélisande’s love for his half-brother Pelléas. Michael Boyd’s thought-provoking new production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at Garsington Opera certainly ponders plentiful secrets: of the conscience, of the subconscious, of the soul. But, with his designer Tom Piper, Boyd brings the opera’s dreams and mysteries into landscapes that are lit, symbolically and figuratively, with precision.

Carmen: The Grange Festival

The Grange Festival, artistic director Michael Chance, has opened at Northington Grange giving everyone a chance to see what changes have arisen from this change of festival at the old location. For our first visit we caught the opening night of Annabel Arden's new production of Bizet's Carmen on Sunday 11 June 2017. Conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in the pit, the cast included Na'ama Goldman as Carmen, Leonardo Capalbo as Don Jose, Shelley Jackson as Micaela and Phillip Rhodes as Escamillo. There were also two extra characters, Aicha Kossoko and Tonderai Munyevu as Commere and Compere. Designs were by Joanna Parker (costume co-designer Ilona Karas) with video by Dick Straker, lighting by Peter Mumford. Thankfully, the opera comique version of the opera was used, with dialogue by Meredith Oakes.

Don Giovanni in San Francisco

San Francisco Opera revved up its 2011 production of Don Giovanni with a new directorial team and a new conductor. And a blue-chip cast.

Dutch National Opera puts on a spellbinding Marian Vespers

A body lies in half-shadow, surrounded by an expectant gathering. Our Father is intoned in Gregorian chant. The solo voices bloom into a chorus with a joyful flourish of brass.

Into the Wood: A Midsummer Night's Dream at Snape Maltings

‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where Oxlips and the nodding Violet grows.’ In her new production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Netia Jones takes us deep into the canopied groves of Oberon’s forest, luring us into the nocturnal embrace of the wood with a heady ‘physick’ of disorientating visual charms.

Rigoletto in San Francisco

Every once in a while a warhorse redefines itself. This happened last night in San Francisco when Rigoletto propelled itself into the ranks of the great masterpieces of opera as theater — the likes of Falstaff and Tristan and Rossini’s Otello.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

John Tomlinson as the Minotaur (Photo: Bill Cooper)
21 Apr 2008

The Minotaur — Royal Opera, Covent Garden

Harrison Birtwistle’s new full-scale opera, commissioned by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is a study of isolation and imprisonment.

Harrison Birtwistle: The Minotaur

The Minotaur: John Tomlinson
Theseus: Johan Reuter
Ariadne: Christine Rice
Snake Priestess: Andrew Watts
Innocents: Rebecca Bottone, Pumeza Matshikiza, Wendy Dawn Thompson, Christopher Ainslie, Tim Mead
Heirus: Philip Langridge
Kere: Amanda Echalaz
The Royal Opera, Antonio Pappano (cond.)
Performance of 15 April 2008

Above: John Tomlinson as the Minotaur
All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House

 

The Minotaur is a man imprisoned in a non-human body with non-human desires, itself imprisoned inside a labyrinth, and his spirit is imprisoned by his inability to use human language. Ariadne is imprisoned by being physically stranded on Crete, and by the skeletons in her family’s closet. All — including the unfortunate Innocents who are delivered annually to Crete as the Minotaur’s sacrificial prey — are prisoners of fate. Birtwistle’s score is based on various permutations of a single, inescapable melodic line throughout, and Alison Chitty’s set is highly effective in its depiction of, alternately, a shoreline surrounded by a sea and sky which constantly seem to close in on one another, and a curved, claustrophobic chamber in the bowels of the labyrinth.

Although they do not realise it, everybody has much the same standing in this miserable situation. Asterios, the Minotaur, is Ariadne’s half-brother, and in the opera’s version of events he is also Theseus’s — David Harsent’s libretto has it that the Minotaur’s bull-father, rather than being a familiar of the sea-god Poseidon, was probably Poseidon himself in bull form. The denouement has the Minotaur recoiling at the sight of Theseus’s face — partly at the recognition of him as the dark shadow who, along with Ariadne, has haunted his dreams, but perhaps partly too as he recognises a human form of himself. The Oracle has said that Theseus will triumph, so we all know it is inevitable — but in the final battle, there is a moment when the two ‘brothers’ seem absolutely the equal of one another.

CHRISTINE RICE AS ARIADNECHRISTINE RICE AS ARIADNE

The piece focuses on the Minotaur far more as man than as monster, and the situation leads even the ‘complete’ humans to exhibit animalistic traits — one of the finest pieces of choreographic judgement in Langridge’s production is the moment where the First Innocent (Rebecca Bottone) finds herself flung into the presence of the Minotaur. Stalked by the creature, she skitters around the floor, legs flailing like a newborn fawn in the presence of an inescapable predator, before being raped and killed. The distinction between human and animal is less clear-cut than those outsiders who persecute the Minotaur would like to imagine.

The title role has been written for John Tomlinson, an inspired piece of dramatic visualisation on the part of the composer. Tomlinson’s singing, wordless except in the ‘dream’ scenes, is muscular and imbued with pathos, and he successfully conveys a suffering animal in his gait and stature.

JOHAN REUTER AS THESEUSJOHAN REUTER AS THESEUS

However, the opera at first seems to be about Ariadne, a tour de force for the mezzo Christine Rice (though the character is sketchily developed considering the length of time she spends on stage) with the focus shifting to the Minotaur and his showdown with Theseus (Johan Reuter) later on. But it matters little which way round the situation is seen, as these people are inextricably bound together. Ariadne needs Theseus in order that she can escape Crete (Theseus rejects her romantic advances, and their agreement to return to Athens together as man and wife after the Minotaur’s death is purely a business arrangement). Both Ariadne and Theseus need the Minotaur, or rather a victory over the Minotaur, as a way of defeating their own demons. The Minotaur needs Ariadne as his link with the outside world, and Theseus as his release.

The Minotaur’s only company, if it can be referred to as such, is the chorus — faceless spectators at the heart of the labyrinth, forever hungry for carnage and slaughter. They often speak in Ancient Greek, left untranslated in the surtitles, so the audience is encouraged to share the terrible isolation experienced by the Minotaur on account of his inability to use language.

BOTTONE AS FIRST INNOCENT & TOMLINSON AS THE MINOTAUR BOTTONE AS FIRST INNOCENT & TOMLINSON AS THE MINOTAUR

The piece is pervaded by a sense of primaeval inevitability, underlined by projected images between scenes showing a slowly rolling slate-grey sea. This creates a stasis which unfortunately has not been adequately addressed in terms of its effect on the dramatic pacing, and the need to compensate for it. The Minotaur barely moves, and is usually discovered standing still, centre stage; the length of the scenes seems determined by the amount of business that has to be got through rather than by any dramaturgical calculation. The opera’s structure seems front-heavy, with the piece’s natural centre being the extraordinary Oracle scene populated by the monstrous, androgynous Snake Goddess (countertenor Andrew Watts) and her Hiereus (Philip Langridge) who translates her incomprehensible pronouncements for Ariadne and Theseus. It is the only scene which takes place in a location other than the barren shoreline or the heart of the labyrinth, and it is where the drama takes a step forward with Ariadne’s self-revelation and the prophecy of Theseus’s success. This is in fact Scene 10 of 13. Although the slow pace does succeed in throwing into relief the faster-paced sequences, it cannot be overlooked that the opera is too long for its subject matter — the first part could be edited down by almost half, and the opera performed in a single act with the Oracle scene in the middle.

There is clumsiness in the staging, too. Killings which should be shockingly violent are trivialised by the requirement for each victim, once ‘wounded’, to run halfway off stage in order to be given a supply of stage blood to enable their wounds to look realistic. It is left to the nightmarish Keres — black-winged vulture-like harpies who feast upon the entrails of the dead and dying — to provide an injection of sheer visceral horror, scored with guttural shrieks and jagged rhythms.

With a near-perfect cast and Antonio Pappano at the musical helm, Birtwistle’s new opera could hardly have been given a better start in life. The work itself, and its promising staging, could do with a little revision if a revival is to be attempted.

Ruth Elleson © 2008

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):