The Minotaur, Royal Opera, Covent Garden, January 2013

The opening night of this revival ended with a tribute to John Tomlinson for 35 years of wonderful service to the ROH — highly appropriate since composer Harrison Birtwistle has said Tomlinson was the key to writing this opera, which had been brewing in his mind for many years.

The Innocents arrive, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

The Innocents arrive, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

The first scene shows Christine Rice as Ariadne on the beach with a heaving sea projected on the backdrop, and the opera ends with Elisabeth Meister’s bloodcurdling scream as the Ker, seeing the Minotaur dead and her share of future victims vanish. In the meantime Ariadne has revealed that as the daughter of Minos and his wife Pasiphae, whom Theseus calls “whore to the bull of the sea”, she is half-sister to the Minotaur, whom Theseus has come to kill him so as to save future Athenian innocents from further death. She tricks him into letting the present twelve go first, and Act I ends with their massacre. Susana Gaspar as the first innocent was particularly good here, lying in wounded agony before the winged Keres come to pluck out her heart.

In the second act Johan Reuter as Theseus reveals that he may be the son of Poseidon, and if Poseidon was indeed the bull of the sea then he is half-brother to the Minotaur. The important dichotomy between Theseus and Ariadne however, is that while he wants to get into the labyrinth, she wants to get out of Crete. Needing to bring him back from the centre she consults the oracle at Psychro, who gives her the ball of twine despite her lying about her true intentions, and after making Theseus promise to accompany her away from the island the stage is now set for the final denouément.

The Minotaur

The Minotaur

Birtwistle’s opera, with this clever production by Stephen Langridge, designs by Alison Chitty and lighting by Paul Pyant, works wonders with the story and with the Minotaur himself, shown to be both man and beast. Presaging his first appearance a wall of sound is followed by two tubas in unison, along with contrabass clarinet and contrabass bassoon. The music is fascinating, its permanent state of melody a metaphor for the labyrinth. And David Harsent’s libretto is a masterpiece of concision and clarity drawing us through the story.

The duality between man and beast is cleverly expressed through lines such as, “When I go to sleep does the man sleep first, when I awake does the beast wake first?” The Minotaur speaks only in his dreams, and when he dreams he sees himself, he sees Ariadne, he even sees Theseus, appearing through a mirror with him. He thinks of his life, his failings, his sorrows, in each case calling them “all too human”. When Theseus arrives he recognises him from the dream, and reflects on his predicament of being both man and beast. “The beast is vile, so the man must go unloved. The beast can’t weep, so the man must go dry-eyed. The beast is wounded, so the man must die”. We begin to understand the man-beast, hidden away in the labyrinth as a child. It’s a great opera, the only surprise being that it has yet to be produced anywhere else since first appearing at the ROH in April 2008.

Tomlinson, Johan Reuter, and Christine Rice repeated their wonderful performances from five years ago, and Elisabeth Meister sang an excellent Ker, with Andrew Watts and Alan Oke taking over the roles of snake priestess and her medium Hiereus. The priestess herself rises to a great height, looking like those famous chthonic deities from Knossos, a nice touch.

The lyrical wonder of Birtwistle’s music, combined with lines of sheer terror, was brilliantly conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth on this occasion, and if you went in 2008, go again, particularly with tickets at such low prices for this thrillingly deep opera.

Performances continue until January 28 — for details click here.

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