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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.