A mythical beast, a ritual sacrifice, a quest into the unknown: the story of the Minotaur resonates with many of the recurring ideas in Harrison Birtwistle's work. His latest opera, a Covent Garden commission, is a return to the world of Greek mythology, which is never far beneath the surface of his music, but has not been the subject of a stage work since
The Mask of Orpheus
, completed in 1983. The opera has been ten years in the writing and has spawned a number of satellite projects along the way, most notably
in 2002. This is an orchestral work in which solo instruments weave through a maze-like score, guided by an endless line of melody, a musical allusion to Ariadne’s magic thread.
Birtwistle has established strong working relationships with many creative artists over the course of his long career, and the team behind
includes a number of collaborators of long-standing. The title role was written specifically for John Tomlinson, who sang the Green Knight in the Royal Opera's last Birtwistle commission,
in 1990. Gawain's librettist, the poet David Harsent, again provides the words, while the visual designs are by Alison Chitty, with whom Birtwistle last worked on The Io Passion at the Aldeburgh Festival in 2004.
A number of themes link The Minotaur
to Birtwistle's earlier operas. Labyrinthine underworlds have been evoked before in The Mask of Orpheus
and The Second Mrs. Kong
. Physical violence, an effective shock tactic in Birtwistle's first opera, Punch and Judy
, returns as a disturbing visual theme. Theseus’ quest into the labyrinth, already the inspiration for Theseus Game
, is presented in the opera as a journey of destiny and self-discovery, much in the spirit of Gawain's quest to find the Green Knight.
But one recurring Birtwistle device is significantly played down in The Minotaur
. Ritual and repetition are usually central to Birtwistle's work fracturing the narrative and imposing introspective stasis. The story of the Minotaur, by contrast, is told straight. The only element of ritualistic repetition is the slaughter scenes. Towards the end of the first part, a group of innocents is sent as a sacrifice to the Minotaur, who dispatches them violently. Their bodies are then devoured by the half-bird death-spirits, the Keres. The second part ends with the Minotaur's own demise at the hands of Theseus, and the event unfolds in parallel with that earlier slaughter. The only static interludes are the dream sequences, a device introduced in order to allow the creature a human voice. Otherwise, the work unfolds as a traditional operatic narrative, with stage action supported and enhanced by a dramatic and emotive score.
Surprisingly, Birtwistle’s music proves to be ideal in fulfilling this traditional operatic role. A foreboding prelude opens the work, with contrabassoon and contrabass clarinet evoking the subterranean horrors to come. Orchestral interludes bridge the scene changes. These are short, to the point of bare functionality, but each is based on a single musical idea, retaining the sense of narrative linearity. Birtwistle describes these interludes as ‘Toccatas’, implying a connection to Bach, but the director is obviously more aware of their affinities to Britten and projects images of the sea onto the curtain throughout each one.
Much of the vocal writing also evokes Britten, more complex perhaps, but with the same respect for the cadence of the English language. The voice of Ariadne (sung by Christine Rice) is coupled with the alto saxophone, which accompanies, sometimes as shadow, sometimes as elaboration, each of her utterances. It also accentuates the sleaziness of her manipulative sexuality as she seduces Theseus into helping her escape the island.
The defining sound of the work’s orchestration is the woodwind. Birtwistle supplements the standard lineup with a number of larger relations - bass flute, contrabass clarinet - and uses these to weave long, dark, sinewy phrases. As in Theseus Game
, the linearity of the musical texture acts as a metaphor for Ariadne’s thread, leading us through the various scenes and providing a helping hand to the narrative flow.
Aside from the dream sequences, the only major addition made to the mythical story is a scene in which Ariadne consults an oracle. This allows for the inclusion of two minor, but striking roles. The oracle is called the ‘Snake Priestess’ but is written for a high counter tenor, sung with mesmerising power by Andrew Watts. The oracle’s keeper and interpreter is Hiereus. This priestly role allows Birtwistle a brief opportunity for ritualistic soothsaying and incantation. It also provides a cameo for Philip Langridge, whose son Steven Langridge is the director of the production. Sadly, a cameo is all it is, and we hear precious little of this legendary voice, which has already proved more than equal to Birtwistle’s demands as Orpheus at English National Opera.
Not that fine voices are in short supply. Christine Rice as Ariadne is expected to fulfil a dual role; initially she narrates to the audience but after the arrival of Theseus she gradually transforms into a compromised romantic heroine. The part requires both clarity and empathy. Rice’s delivery is often just on the verge of coloratura, restrained yet always emotive and richly textured. The young Danish tenor Johan Reuter gives a similarly consummate account of Theseus. Again, the role is not heroic in the straightforward Heldentenor
sense, but Reuter captures the dualities and contradictions while retaining the sense of heroic destiny.
Visually, the production is fairly straightforward, suggesting the director and designer have confidence in the music to set the scene and tell the tale. The signature theme of the sets is a surface texture of planked floorboards painted black. The paint has been worn away in long strips (by a bull pawing the ground perhaps?) and the resulting effect is overlaid with large blood-stained patches. The opening scene takes place at a beach on Crete, where Ariadne laments her exile on the island. The beach is represented by a long rectangular sandbox along the front of the stage with an effigy of a bull’s head half buried in the sand. The Minotaur’s lair is a circular arena suggesting a bullring, with a masked audience looking on, a reference to the goading crowds in Picasso’s Minotaur etchings. The slaughter scenes (first of the sacrificial victims, then of the Minotaur himself) bring two timpanists to the stage. These are positioned at opposite sides and provide an antiphonal acoustic backdrop to the ensuing violence.
The lair appears in two dramatically opposing guises: as an area of death and as the enclosed isolation of the Minotaur’s dreams. The dream sequences are a necessary conceit, both for the operatic realisation of the story and for Birtwistle’s dramatic aims. The only additional scenery here is a mirror, and the Minotaur comes to terms with his hybrid form and his fate of incarceration through communing with his own reflection. These are familiar Birtwistle themes; both the hairy protagonist and the mirror appear in The Second Mrs. Kong
, and the idea of a bewildered anti-hero despairing of his fate and lack of self-knowledge has parallels in many of Birtwistle’s stage works. These dream sequences are the most dramatically fragile of the opera, and their credibility relies heavily on the performer. Fortunately, John Tomlinson is able to render this existential angst with pathos and focussed intensity. With Tomlinson’s advancing years, it was perhaps charitable of the composer and librettist to limit his time on the stage, although he continues to make annual appearances as Wotan at Bayreuth. But the whole opera falls into place around Tomlinson’s masterful performance, and the infrequency of his appearances only increases their appeal.
Elaine Padmore, the director of the Royal Opera, writes with pride in her introduction to the programme about Gawain
, the company’s last Birtwistle commission. That production was a success (it was revived twice and commercially recorded) and the work has proved to be a milestone, both in Birtwistle’s career and in the history of British opera. No doubt the management fosters similar ambitions for The Minotaur
. On the evidence of this first performance, the opera is as strong as Gawain
and should enjoy similar success. Productions in other houses could also be a real possibility. Without the perspective of time, though, it is difficult to separate the lead role from John Tomlinson’s voice. Any other singer donning the bull’s head is also going to have to fill some very big shoes.
© Gavin Dixon 2008