Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Music for a While: Rowan Pierce and Christopher Glynn at Ryedale Online

“Music for a while, shall all your cares beguile.”

A Musical Reunion at Garsington Opera

The hum of bees rising from myriad scented blooms; gentle strains of birdsong; the cheerful chatter of picnickers beside a still lake; decorous thwacks of leather on willow; song and music floating through the warm evening air.

'In my end is my beginning': Mark Padmore and Mitsuko Uchida perform Winterreise at Wigmore Hall

All good things come to an end, so they say. Let’s hope that only the ‘good thing’ part of the adage is ever applied to Wigmore Hall, and that there is never any sign of ‘an end’.

Iestyn Davies and Elizabeth Kenny bring 'sweet music' to Wigmore Hall

Countertenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny kicked off the final week of live lunchtime recitals broadcast online and on radio from Wigmore Hall.

From Our House to Your House: live from the Royal Opera House

I’m not ashamed to confess that I watched this live performance, streamed from the stage of the Royal Opera House, with a tear in my eye.

Woman’s Hour with Roderick Williams and Joseph Middleton at Wigmore Hall

At the start of this lunchtime recital, Roderick Williams set out the rationale behind the programme that he and pianist Joseph Middleton presented at Wigmore Hall, bringing to a close a second terrific week of live lunchtime broadcasts, freely accessible via Wigmore Hall’s YouTube channel and BBC Radio 3.

Natalya Romaniw - Arion: Voyage of a Slavic Soul

Sailing home to Corinth, bearing treasures won in a music competition, the mythic Greek bard, Arion, found his golden prize coveted by pirates and his life in danger.

Purcell’s The Indian Queen from Lille

Among the few compensations opera lovers have had from the COVID crisis is the abundance – alas, plethora – of streamed opera productions we might never have seen or even known of without it.

Philip Venables' Denis & Katya: teenage suicide and audience complicity

As an opera composer, Philip Venables writes works quite unlike those of many of his contemporaries. They may not even be operas at all, at least in the conventional sense - and Denis & Katya, the most recent of his two operas, moves even further away from this standard. But what Denis & Katya and his earlier work, 4.48 Psychosis, have in common is that they are both small, compact forces which spiral into extraordinarily powerful and explosive events.

A new, blank-canvas Figaro at English National Opera

Making his main stage debut at ENO with this new production of The Marriage of Figaro, theatre director Joe Hill-Gibbins professes to have found it difficult to ‘develop a conceptual framework for the production to inhabit’.

Massenet’s Chérubin charms at Royal Academy Opera

“Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio … Now I’m fire, now I’m ice, any woman makes me change colour, any woman makes me quiver.”

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

The Queen of Spades at Lyric Opera of Chicago

If obsession is key to understanding the dramatic and musical fabric of Tchaikovsky’s opera The Queen of Spades, the current production at Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds admirably in portraying such aspects of the human psyche.

WNO revival of Carmen in Cardiff

Unveiled by Welsh National Opera last autumn, this Carmen is now in its first revival. Original director Jo Davies has abandoned picture postcard Spain and sun-drenched vistas for images of grey, urban squalor somewhere in modern-day Latin America.

Lise Davidsen 'rescues' Tobias Kratzer's Fidelio at the Royal Opera House

Making Fidelio - Beethoven’s paean to liberty, constancy and fidelity - an emblem of the republican spirit of the French Revolution is unproblematic, despite the opera's censor-driven ‘Spanish’ setting.

A sunny, insouciant Così from English Touring Opera

Beach balls and parasols. Strolls along the strand. Cocktails on the terrace. Laura Attridge’s new production of Così fan tutte which opened English Touring Opera’s 2020 spring tour at the Hackney Empire, is a sunny, insouciant and often downright silly affair.

A wonderful role debut for Natalya Romaniw in ENO's revival of Minghella's Madama Butterfly

The visual beauty of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, now returning to the Coliseum stage for its seventh revival, still takes one’s breath away.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird at Seattle

It appears that Charlie Parker’s Yardbird has reached the end of its road in Seattle. Since it opened in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia it has played Arizona, Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and the English National Opera.

La Périchole in Marseille

The most notable of all Péricholes of Offenbach’s sentimental operetta is surely the legendary Hortense Schneider who created the role back in 1868 at Paris’ Théâtre des Varietés. Alas there is no digital record.

Three Centuries Collide: Widmann, Ravel and Beethoven

It’s very rare that you go to a concert and your expectation of it is completely turned on its head. This was one of those. Three works, each composed exactly a century apart, beginning and ending with performances of such clarity and brilliance.

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):