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Friday 18 January 2013

The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House


A thrilling evening!

I didn't catch The Minotaur during its premiere in 2008, so was delighted to be able to see it in this, its first revival. And it's fantastic. This opera really shows why Birtwistle is so esteemed: this is incredibly exciting music with a bewilderingly imaginative ear for sonority and texture, and though it doesn't develop traditionally and is not exactly generous to the ear, the almost cinematic way it creates space, mood and drama keeps it engaging and tense. The violence and barbarism of the music evokes a very particular atmosphere that seems completely fitting with the subject matter and (excellent) libretto - fractured, shimmering and brittle, with frequent outbursts of roaring orchestral power. We have to wait until the second act to get anything that substantially contrasts - often Birtwistle will contrast loud music with silence and emptiness rather than softness. There's no doubt that certain portions are ugly and even crude and more contrast would give it a more conventional tension and shape. All this makes for a sometimes uncomfortable listening experience and I fully understand if it becomes too much for people, even although on its own terms, the sheer resourcefulness of Birtwistle's ability to create new noises from the orchestra borders on the miraculous. But it's also compelling theatre, and it comes 75% from the music which is what opera should be like.

In between all this hard, tortured psychology is an undeniable sickly, throbbing sexuality, a quality that is extremely rare in atonal music. Lulu manages this with its opulent lushness (learned from Wagner and Strauss, improbably transmuted by 12 tone procedures), but in Birtwistle's score the presence of this element is surprising because of his eschewal of the languid, the indulgent, the ingratiating. It's not just the sleazy sax that so often accompanies Ariadne - there's a queasy, genuinely erotic tone in the score that completely convinces in the demented context. In say Strauss' ostensibly comparable Salome, the extreme sexual situation comes off as pure porn: however vital and inspired the notes are, it's calculated decadence, designed to titillate, faked for the camera*. In Birtwistle the combination of violence and sex creates a nausea that is real and disturbing.

All this is so difficult to get right in the theatre, especially in opera. To tackle sexual themes without being too prim, or the more common danger in recent years, without being too obvious, is rare: the result of either of these approaches is either risible or alienating. But director Stephen Langridge gets it just right. He realises the power of Birtwistles music and doesn't try to do too much - he creates a very simple circular set mainly through lighting (by Paul Pyant), leaving most of the heavy lifting to our imaginations and the almost choreographic score. That is not to say that he isn't pulling his weight, but he prefers simplicity and congruence to sensory overload and symbolism and it works superbly with the music. I also very much admired the finely tuned level of abstraction in all aspects - set, costumes (both by Alison Chitty), and action - even the way the Minotaur kills people is judged just right - making it realistic would just get in the way - there is gore, but there's also metaphor, and still the full horror of the events is adequately construed. Also John Tomlinson's Minotaur costume - we see the man and the beast simultaneously at all times, its adaptable enough for Tomlinson to be both scary and sympathetic, it suggests enough of the beastliness and leaves enough to the imagination. And as mentioned the theme of twisted sexuality is brilliantly handled - Ariadne is sexy and vampish in a believable way without resorting to action designed to shock which might take you out of the drama. The video of the Aegean sea rippling in slow motion that punctuates the opera becomes strangely and compellingly erotic. I could continue, but suffice to say that everything feels just right.

There's wonderful performances from the entire cast: John Tomlinson is superb as the Minotaur, inhabiting the part as expected whilst giving the character a pathos and sadness that marks out all his darkest creations. If anything he is slightly under utilised - he is such a great performer that the music could have entrusted him with more room for interpretation and subtlety, but the current trend in composition is to leave as little to chance as possible, and this is obviously the composer's prerogative, so it is what it is.

Christine Rice is simply outstanding as Ariadne in what is by far the longest role in the opera - really demanding music, though eminently lyrical and singable as far as dissonant contemporary music goes. The voice is luscious, large and beautifully controlled. The top is shiny and particularly lovely and is very well integrated with the powerful middle voice. Birtwistle requires frequent excursions into pure chest register and these were handled with great command and convincing power though perhaps not ideally blended with the middle voice. Unsurprisingly there were slight signs of fatigue by her final scene, but Rice possesses a wonderful, wonderful instrument, deserving of the very highest praise. For those who haven't heard her, her voice is the same sort of build and type as Eva-Maria Westbroek's but in the mezzo register and with a more beautiful basic timbre. Her acting was similarly exemplary.

Johan Reuter impressed greatly as Theseus with his large burnished sound and great control. He has a lot of loud singing to do so it's not a part requiring the greatest subtlety, but it was simply a pleasure to hear such assurance and beautiful tone in this music. Elisabeth Meister clearly took great delight in playing Ker, the leader of the hideous, scabrous harpies that devour the hearts of the Innocents, and she sounded truly spectacular in the showy, ecstatically leaping tessitura of her part. This is another exciting voice, whose large size and electric energy make her one to watch. The rest of the cast were also very good - countertenor Andrew Watts' febrile Snake Priestess was brilliantly conceived, and all the minor "Innocent" roles were very well sung indeed for such small parts. In contemporary music which is not yet well known it is often difficult to give an appraisal of the contribution made by the conductor and orchestra, but the orchestra were sounding very good indeed and were clearly committed to what must be a very challenging play, and Ryan Wigglesworth lead with energy and clarity.

When have I ever been this happy with a performance?! It's not the most delightful night at the opera, or the most emotionally compelling, but it is stirring, affecting and vital, and superbly executed by all: one of the very rare occasions when all aspects of this impossible art form conspire to be greater than the sum of their parts. If you are in any way inclined towards modern music I urge you to go.

Afterwards there was a touching tribute to John Tomlinson, celebrating 35 years of him performing at the ROH. He is one of the greatest interpretive artists of our times and it will be a great shame when he decides to give up the stage.

*NB: I LOVE Strauss.


  1. I have this on Blu-ray and love it. I would dearly love to be able to see it live.

  2. I also have the original production on Blu-ray - a really haunting and beautiful piece. Tomlinson is always at his best when he plays tormented monsters, be it Hagen, Claggart or the Minotaur.