From the ponderous solemnity of the opening you get the impression Birtwistle had decided that The Minotaur would be his ‘mature masterpiece.’ Unlikely to write an opera about a Frisbee manufacturer, or an 18 to 30s holiday resort, Birtwistle opted for his usual classic ancient Greek tale. Full of ritual, full of tragedy. Very serious business.
The opera is split into three recurring sections: Dialogue between Ariadne and Theseus, the Minotaur killing ‘Innocents’ and the Minotaur’s tortured dreams in which he tries to understand his own origins. This trio of narrative, violence and dreaming is a terrific idea. It serves the story very well, and has a clear formal integrity of its own.
More darkly brooding than Birtwistle’s nimbler, brighter scores, the music of this opera is a confluence of gorgeousness and menace. Unexpected combinations of timbre and melody illuminate the monstrous atmosphere. Replacing Pappano in the pit at short notice is conductor Ryan Wigglesworth. There’s. no doubt, less vehemence in his reading than at the premiere in 2008 but other than a slight shyness from the percussion the music was powerfully rendered.
The libretto by David Harsent sets itself up as a work of poetry in its own right, but after the opening image of the all-seeing-eye of the moon it settles into less self-conscious story-telling.
Monumental in every sense, the direction and design by Stephen Langridge and Alison Chitty is clean and purposeful, never obstructive or showy. The centre of the labyrinth is ragged with scratched walls, but stylized so as to look something like a Twombly painting. Ariadne’s shore is a rectangle of sand reminiscent of a Brazilian ‘landing strip.’
John Tomlinson sings the title role with a deep understanding of the ragged dignity that is at the centre of the work. Though heavily laden with a bull’s head that obscures his face, Tomlinson manages to make his vocal lines crystal clear throughout. Christine Rice, in the role of sun-drenched temptress Ariadne, sings a difficult role with seeming ease, Birtwistle calling for her voice to resonate pendulously at the bottom of her range, with striking effect. Of the three main roles, Johan Reuter’s Theseus (strong singing aside) is surprisingly pedestrian - nothing about his music or his character stands out as individual. Perhaps the human beings are intended to be two dimensional as compared with the effusive Minotaur. Andrew Watts is, on the other hand, pleasantly insane as the Snake Priestess, ten feet tall, singing in a language of his own, with a majestic pair of swinging tits wafting freely in the Grecian breeze. This wildness is, perhaps unintentionally, much-needed comic relief.
The main intervention by Birtwistle and Harsent is what is supposed to be a shattering emotional climax. The Minotaur is mortally wounded by Theseus and can finally express his grief. He is no longer merely a beast. No longer simply a villain. He sings “now I can speak” and pours forth a mesmerising litany of woes (he doesn’t quite sing “I’m just a big softie at heart”, but that’s the general idea). It nearly works, but as the Minotaur had been singing sad songs in English in all of his dream-sequences, and since the audience is instructed to pity him almost from the beginning of the opera, there is no sudden revelation about the deep-rooted humanity of the Minotaur.
- Stephen Crowe