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20 Jan 2013

Sir Harrison Birtwistle The Minotaur ROH 2013

If, first time around, in 2008, The Minotaur offered the obvious excitement of the premiere, it was now noteworthy how quickly it had settled into repertory status. Not that it has yet been performed elsewhere than Covent Garden, though it should be as a matter of urgency, but that its 2013 outing proceeded with the apparent ease one might expect of, say, The Magic Flute or Carmen. That is surely testament both to the excellence of the performances we heard as well as to the stature of Birtwistle’s opera itself.

Though it packs an undoubted musico-dramatic punch, The Minotaur is not perhaps the overwhelming experience, the assault upon one’s faculties, offered by The Mask of Orpheus. It arguably stands a ‘late’ or at least ‘later’ work, somewhat simpler - these things are relative, of course - and more direct (ditto). The unbroken thread of the score, a metaphor for Ariadne’s own thread, brings the work closer to conventionally understood operatic tradition. This is a more linear work than many, for though Birtwistle and his librettist, David Harsent, also play once again with ritual and repetition, re-telling is incorporated, expressed, almost Wagner-like, within an essentially linear narrative. The labyrinth, then, has order, clearly discernible, beyond the apparently senseless chaos of human-bestial existence, as symbolised in the person of the ‘half and half,’ Asterios the Minotaur. Whether to start here, with The Mask of Orpheus, with Gawain, with Punch and Judy, or elsewhere is not something about which to become unduly worked up; the choice would be akin to deciding or falling upon a Wagnerian baptism of fire with Tristan or the Shakespeare-like entrée of Die Meistersinger, and so on. It is difficult to imagine, however, that anyone with ears to hear and with the slightest curiosity would not be hooked; my immediate response upon emerging from the theatre was to hope that I should be able to find a ticket for a subsequent performance.

Reworkings of myth proceed in typical Birtwistle fashion, though here of course the credit is at least as much Harsent’s. An especially interesting idea is the presentation of the bull who mounted Pasiphae as Poseideon; the Minotaur is therefore perhaps Theseus’s half-brother. (We still do not know, nor does he, whether Theseus be the son of Poseidon or the son of Aegeus.) It is, moreover, an excellent touch to tantalise us with Theseus’s future abandonment of Ariadne; it is stressed that they will board the ship together, but it is equally noteworthy that no one foresees her reaching Athens. The orchestra, meanwhile, acts very much in neo-Wagnerian style as Chorus, shadowing, intensifying, commenting upon the action. Perhaps there is something of Bach in the well-nigh obbligato quality of the alto saxophone identified with Ariadne - who in this retelling becomes perhaps a more compromised, even ambiguous character. She is not always ‘straight’ with Theseus; she even attempts to trick Fate, both by moving a pebble from one hand to hand. It takes a second try, moreover, before she acts truthfully towards the Snake Priestess. Things could readily have turned out otherwise, then, or maybe not, if one believes in Fate. At any rate, thinking about such matters, experiencing them through the drama, is unavoidable.

Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting proved almost Classical, again contributing very much to the suspicion that this opera has already attained ‘classic’ status. With an orchestra and chorus on top form, the musical drama, incisive, ominous, gripping, beautifully melancholic, spoke, as the cliché would have it, for itself. There was no need for any extraneous ‘excitement’ to be applied from without; this was a far more fulfilling, musically-involving approach. The battery of percussion spoke, of course, but so did the steely yet malleable tones of orchestral woodwind, and not just the saxophone. Choral baiting of the Minotaur truly chilled our blood, just as others’ blood will be spilled on stage.

Christine Rice offered a heartfelt, conflicted Ariadne, Johan Reuter a stolid - but deliberately so - Theseus, his heroism thoughtfully questioned. John Tomlinson, celebrating an extraordinary thirty-five years on the Covent Garden stage, seems to have made the role of the Minotaur just as much as his own as he did the Green Knight in Gawain. (Salzburg’s new production this summer will almost inevitably feature him.) It is a part well suited to his advancing years. Vocal perfection is not required; it might even be out of place. But dramatic presence and integrity most definitely are; the tragic plight of a creature created and rejected so cruelly by ‘humanity’ was searingly portrayed. Andrew Watts again caused consternation with the mysterious archaic babble of the Snake Priestess, tellingly translated by another old Birtwistle hand, Alan Oke. Elisabeth Meister made an equally fantastic impression as the chilling Ker, feasting on the innocents’ blood; it is a screaming harpy-like role, but a musically screaming one, especially in this assumption. There was, in short, no weak link in the cast, and it is a very strong cast indeed.

Stephen Langridge’s staging tells the story with clarity, aided by Alison Chitty’s straightforward yet imaginative designs. I cannot help but retain a niggling doubt that a more adventurous production might have brought out a good number more dramatic strands than we see here. Something more Mask of Orpheus-like or indeed Soldaten-like might have alerted the audience to dramatic layers that went unseen, if certainly not unheard. By the same token, however, there is nothing wrong with expecting and/or permitting the audience to do some ‘aural thinking’ for itself. Let us hope, in any case, that before long there will be alternatives, which will expand our imaginative understanding of the work.

Programme essays were for the most part particularly informative, pieces by Rhian Samuel and David Beard especially so, though it is slightly odd to read Samuel referring to The Mask of Orpheus as ‘Birtwistle’s early opera’; ‘earlier’ perhaps? Moreover, Ruth Padel’s piece is simply incorrect to claim that ‘Monteverdi’s first opera was Arianna’; It was of course Orfeo. Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from the contributions taken as a whole. How splendid, then, to experience the Royal Opera House very much back on form - and on form in so many ways.

Mark Berry

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