The World Premiere of The Minotaur showed us a more mellow and mature Harrison Birtwistle than we’ve heard in his stage works before. There may be less thrilling showiness on display than in The Mask of Orpheus or Gawain but this is a score of grandeur that is sure to yield its subtleties with repeated listenings. From a low-key start, it builds to a shattering and pathetically sad climax.
From the ominous rumblings that prelude the work, it feels almost as though we’re in for an evening of unexpected melodiousness which never transpires. Pacing is everything; the first act gives us a long slow roll, with no jolts or surprises, reflecting the rise and fall of a sea, more solid than liquid, projected at intervals on to a downstage screen. The long-delayed entrance of the title-character brings welcome colour and shape.
Act Two is a relentless build to the final confrontation between the adversaries and, in the climactic duel, Birtwistle lets loose batteries of sound, with all the familiar force of his big orchestral works, before lapsing into a hauntingly poignant demise, as life ebbs away from the stricken beast. Antonio Pappano conducts his first World Premiere since taking over at the Royal Opera House with all the assurance and fire he brought to The Ring last October.
Christine Rice’s Ariadne and Johan Reuter’s Theseus ride the orchestral waves effortlessly, aided by Birtwistle’s sensitive and always supportive accompaniments. Ariadne is defined musically by the almost incongruous undulations of the alto saxophone, which cling to her like a shadow. In a part written for him, John Tomlinson grunts and roars as the half-man, half-beast but finds an eloquence and reflectiveness in the repose of sleep and finally death. Making her Covent Garden debut, the excellent South African soprano Amanda Echalaz is a startlingly vicious Ker, as she screeches and feasts on human tripe and liver.
Librettist David Harsent has given us the Greek tragedy that was never written (or perhaps has just not survived). His text deserves to be heard on its own but here, while its glories don’t always have the chance to shine, it provides a rock-solid spine to the piece. It is a play of chance and choice, the repeated assertions that the Gods look down and toy with us belied by the manipulations of Ariadne who works fate to her own ends. Is it luck or sleight of hand that determines future events? A modern slant shows us what the ancients didn’t see humans controlling their own lives – but it’s tougher for half-humans, trapped in the genetic muddle inflicted by self-gratifying parents.
The striking simplicity of Alison Chitty’s designs is certainly elegant, but there is at times a slight tepidness about Stephen Langridge’s staging. The massacre of the Innocents is more blood-wash than bath and, apart from a simple graphic presentation, we never get any real sense of the labyrinth, surely a structure that abounds with physical possiblities. The Keres, those malign valkyries, while their clawed wings scrape and slap bloodcurdlingly, remain steadfastly earthbound.
On the other hand, the appearance of the gibbering snake priestess (counter-tenor Andrew Watts, aided by Philip Langridge’s translator), is thrillingly realised, a real tour de force of grotesquerie. During the minotaur’s dream sequences, the mirror-gauze we see through, at the same time it reflects back to the beast his darkest shadows, is another spell-binding piece of imagery.
In what he has said will be his final opera, Birtwistle gives us a piece that doesn’t send us out exhilarated so much us make us yearn to return to uncover more of its submerged treasures.