Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Christine Goerke - Strauss Elektra BBC Proms London

The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role. Felicity Palmer was Clytemnestra, Gun-Brit Barkmin was Chrysothemis, Robert Kunzli was Aegisthus and Johan Reuter was Orestes. The concert staging was by Justin Way.

Christine Goerke - Strauss Elektra BBC Proms London

The second day of the Richard Strauss weekend at the BBC Proms saw Richard Strauss's Elektra performed at the Royal Albert Hall on 31 August 2014 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Semyon Bychkov, with Christine Goerke in the title role. Felicity Palmer was Clytemnestra, Gun-Brit Barkmin was Chrysothemis, Robert Kunzli was Aegisthus and Johan Reuter was Orestes. The concert staging was by Justin Way.

Powerful Mahler Symphony no 2 Harding, BBC Proms London

Triumphant! An exceptionally stimulating Mahler Symphony No 2 from Daniel Harding and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, BBC Prom 57 at the Royal Albert Hall. Harding's Mahler Tenth performances (especially with the Berliner Philharmoniker) are pretty much the benchmark by which all other performances are assessed. Harding's Mahler Second is informed by such an intuitive insight into the whole traverse of the composer's work that, should he get around to doing all ten together, he'll fulfil the long-held dream of "One Grand Symphony", all ten symphonies understood as a coherent progression of developing ideas.

Nina Stemme's stunning Strauss Salome, BBC Proms London

The BBC Proms continued its Richard Strauss celebrations with a performance of his first major operatic success Salome. Nina Stemme led forces from the Deutsche Oper, Berlin,at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 30 August 2014,the first of a remarkable pair of Proms which sees Salome and Elektra performed on successive evenings

Santa Fe Opera Presents Updated, at One Point Up-ended, Don Pasquale

On August 9, 2014, Santa Fe Opera presented a new updated production of Don Pasquale that set the action in the 1950s. Chantal Thomas’s Act I scenery showed the Don’s furnishing as somewhat worn and decidedly dowdy. Later, she literally turned the Don’s home upside down!

Dolora Zajick Premieres Composition

At a concert in the Cathedral of Saint Joseph in San Jose, California, on August 22, 2014, a few selections preceded the piece the audience had been waiting for: the world premiere of Dolora Zajick’s brand new composition, an opera scene entitled Roads to Zion.

Santa Fe Opera Presents Huang Ruo's Sun Yat-sen

By emphasizing the love between Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching-ling, Ruo showed us the human side of this universally revered modern Chinese leader. Writer Lindsley Miyoshi has quoted the composer as saying that the opera is “about four kinds of love.” It speaks of affection between friends, between parents and children, between lovers, and between patriots and their country.

Britten War Requiem - Andris Nelsons, CBSO, BBC Prom 47

In light of the 2012 half-centenary of the premiere in the newly re-built Coventry Cathedral of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, the 2013 centennial celebrations of the composer’s own birth, and this year’s commemorations of the commencement of WW1, it is perhaps not surprising that the War Requiem - a work which was long in gestation and which might be seen as a summation of the composer’s musical, political and personal concerns - has been fairly frequently programmed of late. And, given the large, multifarious forces required, the potent juxtaposition of searing English poetry and liturgical Latin, and the profound resonances of the circumstances of the work’s commission and premiere, it would be hard to find a performance, as William Mann declared following the premiere, which was not a ‘momentous occasion’.

Santa Fe Opera Presents an Imaginative Carmen

Santa Fe opera has presented Carmen in various productions since 1961. This year’s version by Stephen Lawless takes place during the recent past in Northern Mexico near the United States border. The performance on August 6, 2014, featured Ana Maria Martinez as a monumentally sexy Gypsy who was part of a drug smuggling group.

Elgar Sea Pictures : Alice Coote, Mark Elder Prom 31

Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé Orchestra persuasively balanced passion and poetry in this absorbing Promenade concert. Elder’s tempi were fairly relaxed but the result was spaciousness rather than ponderousness, with phrases given breadth and substance, and rich orchestral colours permitted to make startling dramatic impact.

Berio Sinfonia, Shostakovich, BBC Proms

Although far from perfect, the performance of Berio’s Sinfonia in the first half of this concert was certainly its high-point; indeed, I rather wish that I had left at the interval, given the tedium induced by Shostakovich’s interminable Fourth Symphony. Still, such was the programme Semyon Bychkov had been intended to conduct. Alas, illness had forced him to withdraw, to be replaced at short notice by Vasily Petrenko.

Four countertenors : Handel Rinaldo Glyndebourne

Handel's Rinaldo was first performed in 1711 at London's King's Theatre. Handel's first opera for London was designed to delight and entertain, combining good tunes, great singing with a rollicking good story. Robert Carsen's 2011 production of the opera for Glyndebourne reflected this with its tongue-in-cheek Harry Potter meets St Trinian's staging.

Santa Fe Opera Presents The Impresario and Le Rossignol

On August 7, 2014, the Santa Fe Opera presented a double bill of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Impresario and Igor Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol (The Nightingale). The Impresario deals with the casting of an opera and Le Rossignol tells the well-known fairy tale about the plain gray bird with an exquisite song.

Barber in the Beehive State

Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.

Stravinsky : Oedipus Rex, BBC Proms

In typical Proms fashion, BBC Prom 28 saw Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex performed in an eclectic programme which started with Beethoven's Egmont Overture and also featured Electric Preludes by the contemporary Australian composer Brett Dean. Sakari Oramo,was making the first of his Proms appearances this year, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus.

Santa Fe Opera Presents a Passionate Fidelio

Santa Fe Opera presented Beethoven’s Fidelio for the first time in 2014. Since the sides of the opera house are open, the audience watched the sun redden the low hanging clouds and set below the Sangre de Cristo mountains while Chief Conductor Harry Bicket led the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra in the rousing overture. At the same time, Alex Penda as the title character readied herself for the ordeal to come as she endeavored to rescue her unjustly imprisoned husband.

Rameau Grand Motets, BBC Proms

Best of the season so far! William Christie and Les Arts Florissants performed Rameau Grand Motets at late night Prom 17.

Adriana Lecouvreur, Opera Holland Park

Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.

Back to the Beginnings: Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at Iford Opera.

The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre.

Schoenberg : Moses und Aron, Welsh National Opera, London

Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission.

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):