Harrison Birtwistle: The Minotaur

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 15 April 2008 4 stars

John Tomlinson as the Minotaur (Photo: Bill Cooper)The premiere of Harrison Birtwistle's long awaited new opera The Minotaur, written in collaboration with the poet David Harsent, was given on Tuesday to a packed Royal Opera House where the sense of occasion and of expectation was palpable and potent. It was a pleasure to be in attendance and to be able to savour a moment in which contemporary music could demonstrate its vitality and pertinence. Pomp and circumstance (somewhat antithetical to the earthy Birtwistle and to new music in general) were for once welcome bedfellows of contemporary opera.

The potential of the art form to present some sort of meaningful reflection upon and interpretation of the Zeitgeist here found at the least an opportunity for inter-faith (inter-disciplinary) dialogue about what it is now to be human. And in the creation of a large-scale, institutionally sanctioned new opera that still manages to speak on its own terms of high goals of poetry, music and drama, the progenitors of The Minotaur have excelled. The care of construction and of realisation is writ large in every scene of the two acts. No moment is perfunctory, no passage redundant. Both composition and performance (conducted with vigour and commitment by Antonio Pappano) communicated a degree of insight and of resolved vision that is customarily absent in much new opera. The dramatic aesthetic of the work, coruscating in its ideas and compelling in its updating of the schematic characters and story of the well-known myth, was thus placed to the foreground and announced, along with the narrative, with great conviction and skill.  

The Minotaur is a fateful work. The fatefulness comes, of course, from its origins in Greek myth and the tropes of destiny, of birth, and of oracular determinism we find there. But this sense of fate invades the whole presentation. It is made to colour the music and atmosphere of the opera to such a degree that we feel at every moment the tragic destiny of the characters, and the terrible fate of each emotion and event. Our affections are aroused equally by the rich characterisation with which this work is imbued. From the first scene, where Ariadne is pictured on a beach viewing the arrival of Athenian innocents for sacrifice to her half-brother Asterios (the Minotaur), the rich promise of the staging, of the music, of the language, and of the drama and the dramatic characterisation is apparent. Ariadne (played with nuance and accomplishment by Christine Rice), here is decidedly not the meek heroine nor the scheming shrew that is women's fate in most Western art, but rather a complex and conflicted presence at the heart of the narrative. She laments and alludes, in a strained and antic recitative, to the situation of moral turpitude to which the island of Crete has descended.

Johan Reuter as Theseus (Photo: Bill Cooper)Morality is in fact an important theme in the opera; in the arresting opening line, with its image of moon as unblinking-eye looking down on us all, Harsent swiftly and shrewdly sets the tone for the psychodrama to come. The minimalism of the set (designed by Alison Chitty) in these first scenes is also vital (bronze bull head at stage front in elongated sandpit, blue beam of light across the back), as it is throughout the performance. It creates for the opening exchanges a clear sense of space in which the drama can unfold. Later on, this early intimation of subtlety of design and of direction (by Stephen Langridge) is confirmed.

The fluid transitions between scenes always aid the flow of the piece. Some of the conceits of the staging, moreover, are decisive in communicating and enriching the story, as in the sudden stratification of the set, in the fourth scene. Here we have a foreground scene of Theseus lying, looking desolately down towards background scene of the innocents as they descend into the labyrinth in darkness, slowly plunging down ladders to their deaths. In this sudden appurtenance, the impending suffering of the Athenians is made all the more real and human by the fact that we watch someone else's horror at their coming end. The projection of a slowly unfurling red string (Theseus' string as he enters the labyrinth) on the curtain just before the final scene of the work matches the conceit of the split stage in terms of succinct and effective storytelling.

The introduction of Theseus (brought to life in an intelligently paced and well-acted performance by Johan Reuter), apparently the hero of the piece, takes place later in the scene. He appears inconspicuously out of the crowd, unheralded and moving almost resentfully into the limelight (in contrast to the clear establishment of Ariadne as a dramatic force earlier). His actions and his speech seem to accord with those of the traditional hero, attempting as he is to save the lives of the doomed innocents, but there is nevertheless something unsettling about it. He does not heed, in a conventional fashion at least, Ariadne's words. The Minotaur  (Photo: Bill Cooper)Sometimes in this first scene he does not even seem, though his words and his actions superficially belie this, to care for the innocents he is trying to help. It is as if he is locked into his own struggle, fated as he is, with internal demons and desires; it will be 'his (sic) death, the Minotaur's, or both' in the end, and Theseus never moves away from this resolute intuition. His exchanges with Ariadne, infused with genuine sexual tension and menace by both Rice and Reuter, are characterised above all by deception and by subterfuge; both characters have their own agendas that they are unwilling to sacrifice for a higher moral purpose.

The Minotaur, no less ambiguously characterised than are the other two protagonists, is introduced finally in the first blood sacrifice scene, which takes place in the fifth of seven scenes in the first act. The curtain rises to reveal John Tomlinson, bare-chested and with a realistic looking bull-head helmet affixed, standing prostrate and prone in the middle of what appears to be a bull ring surrounded just above by 180 degrees of chorus (and by the impassive and captivating presence of Ariadne as moderator). The 'half-and-half' (as the other characters refer to the Minotaur throughout) is at first incoherent, murderous, brutal. He shouts vocables and fragments of broken speech before and during his fierce rape and murder of the first innocent. But even here we do not quite feel repulsed.

Christine Rice as Ariadne  (Photo: Bill Cooper)The actions of the Minotaur are completed without pleasure or perversion; he rapes and kills because he is an animal, and believes there simply to be no other choice. This persona is contrasted with the richer, more reflective inner life that comes to him in dreams, where he is eloquent and clear, though no less anguished. The tension between these two personae provides much of the dramatic weight of the opera, though it is critical to note that the librettist and the composer never fall into the easy trap of dichotomising man and animal into expected categories of innocence and implication. As is stressed again and again, and in what is probably the most important lesson the opera seeks to communicate, the distance between the man and the animal, between poise and peril, is almost nothing at all. Evil lies in us all; civilisation and rationality are only functions, the work seems to say, of our fundamentally base nature.

The pitiable figure of the distressed and tormented half-and-half adds an unexpected poignancy to the opera. It is impossible to be unmoved by his plight, particularly in the dream scenes where he engages in dialogue with a ghostly pre-recorded voice against the background of a mirror in which is pictured the looming figure of Theseus. Tomlinson's magisterial performance, in total command of Birtwistle's stark and un-lyrical idiom as one would expect, is vital to the work's power. Written with Tomlinson in mind, the role is uncannily tailored to his particular physical and musical attributes. His booming bass moves with just the right mix of careful and considered rubato, and swooping yet secco articulation. Not for him the problems of inaudibility that sometimes afflict Reuter in the role of Theseus (especially in the first act, where blaring orchestral sforzandi seem to accompany his every utterance). Tomlinson's acting is likewise impeccable. He evokes the fragility of the bull somehow at the very moment of each kill, and conveys a pathos made all the more potent for his lumbering gait and roar of a voice. His Minotaur is a creation of the highest order, a virtuosic performance that compels and catalyses the opera right up until the final, devastating scene.     

John Tomlinson as the Minotaur and Johan Reuter as Theseus  (Photo: Bill Cooper)The music is a powerful player in the drama. It emphasises events on stage and takes its own part in the telling. The latter situation is evident, for example, in the heavily symbolic, varied vocal styles of the protagonist, whose final ability to sing like a man whilst conscious (he had previously only done this in dreams) is undercut by the limited range and aggravated contours of his line. The expected realisation and denouement of recognition is there belied by the music. Elsewhere, the music is largely typical of Birtwistle: its mobile and angular motifs (continuously hocketed and varied) that are contrasted with occasional passages of sustained and hushed choruses; its reliance in the vocal writing upon a modern idiom of recitation and Sprechgesang; its banging percussive antiphonies (especially powerful in the ritual death scenes where two on stage drummers play rolling fanfares on tom toms in support of the baying shouts of the chorus who long for Asterios to gladiatorially slaughter the innocents); and its colourful timbral insights (for instance the wailing alto saxophone that shadows Ariadne, or the skeletal unpitched wood glissandi of the Minotaur's death scene).

These means are here employed to ratchet up the dramatic tension so that the pacing of the drama becomes an almost breathless pursuit of some sort of resolution or cadence. As the disguised repetitions and developments of the musical figures build up (especially effective at those points where a line is repeated almost immediately with a different inflection, or in the broad musical reminiscences of each of the death scenes) we feel as if we are circling, as if the fate of the pitiful half-and-half is being made worse and more hopeless by its delay. Though to my tastes the music never quite attains a sufficiently frenzied degree of tumult (until the devastating final scene at least), it is nevertheless a fine partner for Harsent's imaginative, evocative, and refreshingly coarse language (as in the many references to the bloody and animalistic birth of the protagonist).

Birtwistle's and Harsent's Minotaur is a fine creation that deserves to take its place in the repertoire, as it surely will, amongst the best music-theatrical creations of our time. Though Birtwistle's music can seem slightly outmoded in today's fast-changing post-modern scene, it still communicates here enough integrity, enough individualistic flair, to provide a satisfying grounding for the events of this finely-wrought piece. The greatest strengths of the opera, to my mind, lie in its creators' determination always to challenge, always to remain resolute in the construction of a story in which every element has its place and its meaning in the broader unfolding. The ambiguous and powerful characters of the work, so unique for opera, are a testament in the final analysis to the form's vigour and stamina, and to its adaptability to almost any aesthetic and style, as much as they are to their creators' skill, and dramatic convictions.    

By Stephen Graham