Whenever a new work comes to the Royal Opera House stage, thoughts tend to focus on the simple question of whether it is a hit or a miss. The general consensus in 2008 was that Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s creation, The Minotaur, was the former, and so with us now able to put that basicissue behind us, the first revival brings the opportunity to delve deeper into the opera’s musical and dramatic details, and consider further the characterisation and performances.
Based on the ancient Greek myth, The Minotaur describes the Athenian Theseus’ attempts to slay the half-man, half-bull, who resides at the centre of the Labyrinth on Crete, and is fed Athenians as recompense for the death of King Minos’ son. A second viewing reminds us just how brilliant this subject matter is for an opera. We have a hero (Theseus) and shadow (the Minotaur) cut from the same cloth, since it transpires that they share the same father, while both the Minotaur and his sister, Ariadne, crave escape, one from the Labyrinth, the other from the island of Crete. Above all, at the heart of the story lies an ‘antagonist’ for whom we cannot help but feel sympathy as we learn how he was born into a dark, monstrous existence. Indeed, it is this that has created his craving for flesh as he finds he cannot allow anything so beautiful and innocent to live.
Overall, The Minotaur presents a perhaps tamer, mellower Birtwistle than is seen in his other operatic output, but that is not to suggest that the music is lacking in either power or any of the composer’s normal versatility. Indeed, it is the tempering of the spiky with the sinuous that makes the score so effective, and should ensure that it enjoys longevity. The music and stage images also complement each other well so that the projected image of solid looking waves is met with eerie, as opposed to overtly stormy, music. In addition, the
percussion is placed at both ends of the stalls circle, just above the pit, which helps to create a stereo sound that makes the audience feel right at the centre of the proceedings.
Although Stephen Langridge’s production is high on drama, it also carries a pleasing understated quality. When the Minotaur kills the Athenians, they actually scrape themselves with red as they fall, bringing a degree of stylisation to what would otherwise be too messy a bloodbath. At the same time, however, the action can feel psychologically intense. Having watched these innocents fall, we feel as if we might finally be granted some moment of peace (Ariadne even sings as much), but suddenly the Keres rush in to rip out the hearts of the victims, their carefully designed wings creating scraping noises on the stage.
As Ariadne, Christine Rice delivers handsomely with a beautiful, finely hued voice that controls lines in model fashion, and tapers notes off to perfection (something that Birtwistle’s score particularly demands). She is also convincing in presenting someone who, in her own way, is just as troubled and desperate as the Minotaur. Johan Reuter is a firm-voiced Theseus, while Andrew Watts and Alan Oke excel as the screeching Snake Priestess and her accompanying priest, Hiereus.
The undoubted star of the evening, however, is Sir John Tomlinson for whom Birtwistle specifically wrote the title role. The part places unusual vocal demands on the performer as in front of people the Minotaur cannot articulate words. Tomlinson’s sound, however, which is always firm and direct, is just as secure when he is simply roaring and howling than when he is soliloquising alone in his dreams. His diction is also impeccable, and his acting as engaging as ever.
A cage-like frame is placed over Tomlinson’s head to create the bull’s throughout, and it seems strange that this is not removed for the scenes when the Minotaur is dreaming alone. Such a move would provide contrast and variation, enable us to see the soul beneath the beast, and help the performer to connect further with the audience by revealing his own face and expressions. There may have been both conceptual and practical reasons behind the decision never to remove the head, but if the only issue is that it is strapped too firmly to the shoulders, perhaps its redesign could be a project for a future revival. Certainly, I can visualise Tomlinson clutching the bull’s head, staring in horror and sadness at the beastly image that he is destined to carry.
On opening night, a presentation was made to Sir John Tomlinson at the end of the performance in recognition of his thirty-five years at the Royal Opera House. It was a fitting tribute to a man who has given such great service to audiences, and, as his performance as the Minotaur more than proves, does not need to be playing Wotan to be classed as an operatic god.