Birtwistle: The Minotaur

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 19 January 2013 4 stars

The MinotaurThe Minotaur premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2008 and here, for its first revival over four years later, the three central singers made welcome returns to their respective roles. Pride of place must go to Sir John Tomlinson, who produced an astonishing singing and acting performance as the "half and half" - the Minotaur of the opera's title. But the evening as a whole is dominated really by the Ariadne of Christine Rice, who is rarely offstage, has the bulk of the musical interest to sustain and whose exchanges with Theseus (an excellent, full-blooded performance by Danish baritone Johan Reuter) constitute the main musical dialectic of the work. Will she seduce him, or won't she? Will she play fair, or will she cheat (she cheats)? Will she set sail with him? Will she help him out of the labyrinth if he agrees to slay the Minotaur? All these questions are argued out in lengthy musical ariosos, punctuated by the visceral excitement of appearances by the Minotaur to rape and kill his innocent sacrificial victims (with the Keres on hand to clean up after he has produced sufficient gore). The chorus (in terrific voice, with precision in attack and a wonderfully clean sound in the big numbers) is presented as a classical Greek chorus, wearing masks and set atop an onstage semi-circular podium, commenting on the action and egging on the Minotaur. The onstage percussionists beside them produce harsh, staccato rhythms that punctuate the melodic (atonally melodic) sweep of the main, enormous orchestra. The whole enterprise is staged elegantly, dramatically, brilliantly fluent in its Personenregie both of principals and chorus. And yet, my overall impression is ultimately that this is a three-star opera given a five-star performance, that the singing, acting and orchestral playing make as persuasive a case as can possibly be made for a work with a number of fatal flaws. And so it is a four-star rating. As a piece of music theatre, The Minotaur is arresting, occasionally exciting and well worth seeing. But as an opera that will travel, be taken up by others, and last beyond its initial run, I have my doubts.

The first obvious star of the evening was conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, who took over at relatively short notice from an indisposed Tony Pappano. Wigglesworth knows Birtwistle's idiom and it showed almost instantly. Orchestral balance was scrupulously maintained; there was fluency of line; beautifully articulated chording; and the music was made to sound dramatic, haunting, evocative and was never over-driven. The three orchestral Toccatas, played against onscreen images of a dark, swelling ocean, were models of interlude or bridging passage music. And the orchestra--despite the difficulty and unfamiliarity of the score set before them--played the music as fluently and assuredly as they do the sea interludes from Peter Grimes or the orchestral passagework in the Ring cycle. So against this musical fabric, the singers could take flight.

And Christine Rice did, for much of the time. Her mezzo is luscious, her sound very full--at the occasional expense of clear diction--and her tone beautifully even. I have one quarrel with her part, Ariadne, as written. At the end of the vast majority of her vocal lines she swoops dramatically downwards: a flattened fifth, or a seventh; a note always at the bottom of her register and often inaudible against the orchestral chord that accompanies it. As the evening progressed I became ever more aware of it, and it bothered me. But the way the part is written is not her fault, and her performance in the role I thought was simply splendid: unflagging, sensuous, splendidly controlled. Her vocal line against the saxophone that often accompanies her was a joy throughout.

Reuter as Theseus more than held his own against her. He has a ringing baritone sound and is blessed with splendidly clear English diction. Always audible in the ensemble passages, he gave a good, spirited account of the role, into which I think he and his voice have grown since 2008. I enjoyed hearing him again far more than I had expected.

In the Oracle scene, Andrew Watts as the Snake Priestess and Alan Oke as Hiereus both made the very most of their musical and dramatic material--spitting out answers to Ariadne's questions and matching her in musical strength and mood as she tried to obtain the answers she wanted. This was a highly effective scene. And as chief Ker, Elisabeth Meister was suitably dramatic and bloodcurdling as she shrieked her followers on. The Keres in this production incidentally make most line-ups of the Valkyries in the Ring look and sound like Sunday School kids on an outing!

And so to John Tomlinson, whose death at the hands of Theseus in the final scene was genuinely affecting and dramatic. First the voice--it is a truism nowadays to say that it has lost a bit of bloom here and there, but on this hearing it is actually in as fine a fettle as any opera singer could hope! Tomlinson's assumption of the role was helped, as ever, by his stupendously clear diction and by the intelligence with which he projects his musical and narrative line. His was a Minotaur--once we heard him singing words in his dreams, not mere bellowing noises--that we began to care about. All sorts of evocative allusions permeate his verbal meanderings, and librettist David Harsent has served him well, allowing the Minotaur to articulate the schizophrenic emotions of a "half and half"--a man beast. Tomlinson sang passages of great tenderness and beauty, but always able to summon power and strength as the beast within him took over. His was a great performance.

Orchestra, chorus, conductor, principals, all came together for this revival to produce something really special. So I revert to my opening question mark as to why the opera itself is ultimately less than convincing. I think there are two main deficiencies. The first is that there is not a spark of humour in it, neither in the libretto nor in the music. As a result, it all becomes a bit po-faced: it is a deeply serious work (and intelligently, sensitively realized) and precisely because of that degree of seriousness, it needs occasional leavening. Shakespeare understood that: the comic passages in his tragedies are precisely what makes them all the more powerful when the main narrative resumes. My second thought is that it is simply too long for its material. The first half (90 minutes) is a case in point. Halfway through we have the sacrifice of the first innocent, the Minotaur disposes of her, and the Keres enter to feast and clean up. We then have an orchestral Toccata, the Minotaur's dream, and then a repetition of the sacrifice scene, this time with all the innocents as victims and a reappearance by the Keres. Dramatically, this is near stasis. Birtwistle's music has the feel of wanting to move us along, but the dramatic repetition lets it down. Two acts of 60 minutes apiece would, to my mind, produce a much tauter, more compelling piece of music theatre.

But all such doubts were temporarily suspended as, at curtain call time, the two Sir Tonys (Hall and Pappano) took to the stage to present Tomlinson with a gigantic cake in celebration of his thirty-five years onstage at the Royal Opera House. Hall gave an elegant tribute, Pappano a passionate one. Tomlinson, offered a microphone to reply, spurned it and talked for a few moments--crystal clear and joyful--from the heart, bemoaning the two seasons in thirty-five at the House that he had missed! From his appearance as Fifth Jew in Salome on 3 November 1977 to the title role in The Minotaur on 17 January 2013, this was a great way to celebrate a vintage career and an extraordinary singer--one of the most extraordinary--of our times. See him in this if you possibly can.

By Mike Reynolds

Photos: Alastair Muir