Revivals of 21st century operas on the stages of major houses are rarer than hens' teeth, so the Royal Opera were making a strong statement when they announced the revival of Harrison Birtwistle's 2008 The Minotaur, with the original director and much of the original cast.
We all know the story: the Minotaur is a half-man, half-bull monster who feeds on human flesh; Theseus is the cruel hero who slays the beast but abandons the fair princess Ariadne. David Harsent's libretto keeps completely compatible with the classical legend, but neatly inverts our sympathies. In Harsent's depiction, the Minotaur is the hapless victim of the gods' whims, mercilessly imprisoned in his own unwanted lechery and blood-lust just as he is physically imprisoned in the labyrinth; we are reminded that he has human dreams and a human name, Asterios. Ariadne blackmails Theseus, withholding the secret of the ball of thread until Theseus promises to take her on his ship set for Athens. Theseus is a simple hero: his faithlessness becomes unsurprising. The opera thoroughly explores the psychology of both monster and princess.
Stephen Langridge's setting is minimalist, artistic and effective. The barest of silhouettes evokes the ship that has brought Theseus from Athens to Crete; descent on ladders into the darkness communicates the emotions of entering the labyrinth in a way that a real maze could not possibly replicate; the Minotaur's head is a masterpiece of costume-making: a gauze construction that looks utterly bull-like but still allows its occupant to sing with apparently little restriction. The Keres (the death spirits who tear the souls from the bodies of the victims of violent death) are artistically depicted and suitably scary, and stage movement is excellent throughout. Only one effect seemed out of place: it's certainly an effective piece of theatre to have the Minotaur both killing and dying in a bullring in front of a baying crowd, but it doesn't accord with the concept of the loneliness and dark impenetrability of the labyrinth, which is abundant in the libretto.
If you are a student of orchestration, Birtwistle's score will have much to commend it, as will its interpretation by Ryan Wigglesworth, which lent immense clarity to complex music. Birtwistle displays an extensive array of different orchestral effects, aided by a large orchestra with considerable arrays of percussion instruments on each side of the pit, in what would normally be stalls circle seats. But I doubt that this score will appeal to many who are not committed enthusiasts for late 20th century works. Although the music has much variety of detail, it only has a single mood: that of disturbing you and building tension. If you imagine a segment of film music in a thriller just before the climax – the bit where the action is building and you are being alarmed and scared – listening to The Minotaur is like having two and half hours of such segments piled end to end with nothing in between. However high the quality of each segment, dramatic impact is lost. Birtwistle's score hardly contains a single phrase without a note that discords with conventional harmony. Whether from nature or nurture, my musical brain interprets such notes as tensions expecting resolution. With every sung line containing unresolved tensions, I found the whole experience wearing and came out feeling rather battered.
In spite of the lack of melody or intrinsic beauty of vocal line, John Tomlinson gave a spellbinding performance – or rather, two spellbinding performances, since he is required to sing completely differently when the Minotaur is a bellowing beast from when we hear him as a distressed, entrapped human. Tomlinson is 66, and I keep hearing comments of the form "of course, the voice isn't what it was," but I can't see how: Tomlinson's voice retains richness of timbre and immense strength, he has the clearest diction of any opera singer I can think of, and he gives his character true nobility. Johan Reuter and Christine Rice were admirable as Theseus and Ariadne without commanding my sympathy in the same way, while Andrew Watts gave a fine cameo as the Pythia, the snake-priestess whose apparently incomprehensible incantations are interpreted as oracular. Elizabeth Meister was allowed to let rip as the head of the Keres, resulting in a spectacular portrait of sheer terror.
Most probably, what you think of The Minotaur will depend on what you demand from an opera. This is a quality production, with many of its elements of the highest class: a fine libretto, an interesting take on a classic story, great singers, excellent production values and a clear, insightful orchestral reading. But even with top price seats for The Minotaur at £65, a little over a third of their equivalents for La Bohème, the number of unsold seats is many times greater. I found The Minotaur an interesting experience, but I can't recommend it to a mainstream opera-goer, who I believe is likely to demand a level of melody and variety of mood that is absent from Birtwistle's writing.
Royal Opera House, Covent GardenBow Street Covent Garden
London Greater London United Kingdom WC2E 9DD
Christine Rice as Ariadne © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013
John Tomlinson as the Monotaur © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013
Christine Rice as Ariadne, Johan Reuter as Theseus © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013
Elizabeth Meister as Ker © ROH / Bill Cooper 2013