The Minotaur’s impenetrable labyrinth

It is to my eternal shame that the suggestion of ‘new’ opera fills me with a slight sinking feeling. When the Royal Opera announced a raft of new commissions for the coming years I was pleased at their vote of confidence in the currency of the artform, but I wasn’t filled with eager excitement for the respective evenings in the theatre. When it came to this revival of The Minotaur then, not having seen it the first time around and in response to a chorus of general approval, I thought I should get myself along. I must say I came out of the theatre at the end with more of a feeling of having done A Good Thing than of pure enjoyment.

I can’t make my mind up about David Harsent’s libretto. At times there were moments of captivating poetry, such as in the opening that recalls Hoffmansthal’s text for Salome in its references to the moon. At other points, it seemed banal (“There’s never a good day to die / There’s never a good way to die”, if I recall correctly) and, most fatally, seemed to be excessively repetitive. This latter observation may be to do with my inability to ‘hear’ much in Harrison Birtwistle’s score that added any weight or colour to the text. I’m afraid it didn’t speak to me musically at all, which I regret and I am perfectly willing to accept might be my problem. The modernistic angularity – of which, Ryan Wigglesworth seemed to have the measure – struck me as a random hotch-potch and, as my partner observed, you could probably have played it backwards and we wouldn’t have noticed.

Stephen Langridge’s production was deftly, and relatively simply, executed – a set of abstract spaces delineated in part by shifting neon boundaries.  Of the scenes that worked particularly well were those in the bullring, with much blood and gore, and a good deal of energetic to-and-fro between chorus, victims and the Minotaur himself. The arrival of the Keres, even more bloodthirsty than the Minotaur himself, occasioned much graphic chewing of entrails from barely-dead innocents. The consultation with the Oracle provided a welcome shift in light and tone, taking the form of a countertenor with a large pair of breasts projected high above the stage on a platform that rose up under his frock (projected in his entirety, I should add, not just the breasts – in case that sentence isn’t clear). These moments of dramatic thrust were more successful than the meditative or philosophical passages, which were the points at which I really wanted to be able to pin down some thematic connection between words and music, but struggled.

The cast was largely that of the first run, and were admirable every one of them. John Tomlinson as Minotaur and Christine Rice as Ariadne had the lion’s share of the text to deliver, and did so with clarity and focus – even when Birtwistle’s orchestration was at times overpowering. Johan Reuter had clean tone and heroic poise as Theseus, and in his confrontations with the manipulative Ariadne would be entirely justified in subsequently abandoning her on Naxos (to more satisfyingly melodic effect). Andrew Watts gave the Oracle’s mystical utterances a captivatingly ethereal projection, with Alan Oke duly interpreting for Ariadne (and us). It jars slightly that she needed to go to the Oracle simply to get the suggestion that she give Theseus a big ball of string so he can get himself out of the labyrinth again. However, I suppose I have suspended greater senses of disbelief before now in the cause of opera. Amongst the Valkyrie-like ‘Keres’, who are a sort of semi-human vulture, Elizabeth Meister should be singled out as their leader for a voice of quite astonishing forward projection, clarity and steel – some very thrilling singing indeed.

So all in all, not the most transformative evening, I’m afraid, but I’m reminded of the Yes, Minister take on Middle England’s view of the Church of England: we might not go, but we’re grateful to know that it’s there.

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