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 Reviews

Review: You Promised Me Everything

Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.

Manon Lescaut, Munich

Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.

Proms Saturday Matinée 1

It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)

The Maid of Pskov (Pskovityanka) , St. Petersburg

I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.

Prom 11 — Grange Park Opera: Fiddler on the Roof

As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.

Saul, Glyndebourne

A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage

Roberta Invernizzi, Wigmore Hall

‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.

Montemezzi: L’amore dei tre Re

Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high. 

Prom 4: Andris Nelsons

The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.

BBC Proms: The Cardinall’s Musick

When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.

Oberon, Persephone and Iolanta at the Aix Festival

Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.

Betrothal and Betrayal : JPYA at the ROH

The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.

Jenůfa Packs a Wallop at DMMO

There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.

Des Moines Fanciulla a Minnie-Triumph

The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015

First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.

Des Moines: A Whole Other Secret Garden

With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.

Seductive Abduction in Iowa

Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Garsington Opera

Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde

What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.

Debussy: Pelléas et Mélisande

So this was it, the Pelléas which had apparently repelled critics and other members of the audience on the opening night. Perhaps that had been exaggeration; I avoided reading anything substantive — and still have yet to do so.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

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

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):