Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur comes a small step closer to repertory status with this, its first revival at The Royal Opera. The work’s premiere in 2008 fulfilled the considerable expectations heaped on it by the composer’s previous, and equally successful, ROH commission, Gawain. The company’s commissioning policy has been struggling to come up with anything fresh in the intervening years (Anna Nicole excepted), so a second outing for The Minotaur is welcome indeed.
Given Birtwistle’s obsession with Greek mythology, the subject of this opera should come as little surprise. What is more surprising is the traditional way in which it is approached. Most of Birtwistle’s stage works eschew linear narrative in favour of ritualistic and repetitious structuring, but The Minotaur is told as a story in the best operatic tradition. The action alternates between two settings: a beach on the edge of Crete, represented by a long sandbox along the front of the stage (with an ominous bronze bull’s head half buried at one end), and the Minotaur’s lair within the labyrinth. This is a wooden amphitheatre; the boards scratched and bloodied by the Minotaur’s sacrificial victims. The Minotaur himself is John Tomlinson - at this stage it is hard to imagine any other singer assuming the bull’s head. The half man/half animal status of the character is represented by the head becoming translucent from some lighting angles, revealing the man beneath. For the scenes in which he dispatches sacrificial victims he’s all animal, but in a series of dream sequences his human side comes through.
The only other setting is a brief audience with “The Oracle at Psychro”, from whom Ariadne learns the trick with the thread. This is a slightly indulgent (and in narrative terms, unnecessary) addition to the original story, but offers the impressive spectacle of Andrew Watts towering over the stage as the gigantic, bare breasted Snake Priestess.
The music is elaborate, but carefully gauged so as not to distract attention from the action. Birtwistle makes full use of the resources of the Royal Opera Orchestra, and then demands more. He writes for contrabass clarinet, contrabass trombone, saxophone, cimbalom, and so much percussion that it spills into the boxes adjacent to the pit. The saxophone is closely linked to the character of Ariadne, and the drums play a prominent part in the scenes of ritual slaughter, but otherwise the orchestra’s role is confined to the colouristic and the dramatic rather than the specifically narrative. Ryan Wigglesworth takes over conducting duties from Antonio Pappano, and a slightly different focus is evident in his interpretation. Pappano took a more “operatic” approach to Birtwistle’s score, more turbulent and perhaps more emotive too. Wigglesworth is a new music specialist, and his interest is more in the detail. He brings the woodwind solos out more clearly, and balances the quiet string textures more carefully. However, he communicates with the singers just as well as Pappano did, and only very rarely allows the huge orchestra to get the better of them.
Revisiting the opera after five years gives occasion to reassess its merits. Just as it did the first time round, the opera seems destined for many further productions, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. David Harsent’s libretto includes long expositionary passages and this allows it a certain self-sufficiency: you don’t need to know the legend beforehand to know what’s happening, but it does mean that the first half hour or so is very slow. Ariadne is our narrator for all this early scene setting, but she then undergoes an abrupt transition to heroine when Theseus arrives. Even more confusingly, it later becomes apparent that she is actually the villain of the piece and that the Minotaur himself is the sympathetic character, the human part of him at least. Or is Theseus the hero? It is never quite clear.
Little, if anything, has changed in director Stephen Langridge’s staging since the 2008 run, and no revival director is credited. There is an effective device representing the descent into the labyrinth with long ladders projected at the back of the stage. That might be new, or perhaps I was just sitting in a better seat this time. Musically, there have been changes and developments, as much from the returning cast as the new faces. Five years is a long time in opera, and everyone is sounding a little older, for better or worse.
Just as in 2008, Christine Rice gives the finest vocal performance. Her voice has mellowed since then; her sound is less florid and more dark and complex. Technically, her performance is close to ideal. One of Birtwistle’s recurring vocal ideas is to end a phrase on a note that is well below the singer’s comfortable tessitura, creating a hollow, colourless sound. Of all the leads, Ms Rice achieves this effect most convincingly. Her acting is also superb, allowing her to command the stage whenever she appears.
Johan Reuter also has a darker tone this time round, deeper and more authoritative. But he’s no match for Ms Rice, either dramatically or vocally. He occasionally struggles with Birtwistle’s complex rhythms and seems to lack the vocal flexibility that the composer expects. Worse though is his acting, which verges on the wooden. Neither composer nor librettist seem sure about what kind of hero Theseus should be, and Mr Reuter has few suggestions to offer them. The other disappointment in terms of singing was Andrew Watts, who was barely audible as the Snake Priestess from where I was sitting in the balcony. His performance of the part at the 2008 premiere was spectacular, so perhaps he was just having a bad night this evening.
The two new singers in supporting roles both gave excellent performances. In 2008, the part of Hiereus, the oracle’s interpreter, was taken by Philip Langridge, whose son Stephen is the director of the production. As Langridge Snr is sadly no longer with us, the role was taken instead by the ever-versatile Alan Oke. His interpretation of the part is more energetic but equally sinister, and well sung too, although the demands here are not great. Elisabeth Meister takes the role of Ker, the leader of the bird-like Keres that feast on the remains of the Minotaur’s victims. A message from her on Twitter earlier in the day informed us that she had a bad cold, but the Strepsils must have worked because her screeches were as powerful and blood-curdling as you could wish for.
And what of Sir John Tomlinson? Birtwistle wrote the title part for his voice as it was five or even ten years ago, and he hasn’t quite retained all of his tone or flexibility. There is less colour to his voice than in 2008, especially at louder dynamics. As with the other lead roles, Birtwistle occasionally stretches the range downwards, and those low notes were more of a struggle this time round. But otherwise this was an excellent performance: commanding, dramatic and emotive. He still has the best diction in the business, and he is as committed to acting the part as he is to singing it.
A note on the cast sheet announced that the performance celebrated John Tomlinson’s 35 years performing with the Royal Opera, an impressive achievement. After the curtain calls, a cake was brought out and some speeches were made. Pappano joked that Tomlinson brings out the beast in every role he plays, and also reminded us that the Minotaur’s death scene is based on that of Godunov, one of Tomlinson’s greatest roles. Finally, Tomlinson himself was asked to say a few words. He didn’t need a microphone, or even to raise his voice, to be heard be everybody in the house.
Photographs © Bill Cooper
Click here to read Gavin Dixon's thoughts on the original performances in 2008.