Friday 25 April 2008

The Minotaur, Royal Opera, 25 April 2008

Royal Opera House

Ariadne - Christine Rice
First Innocent - Rebecca Bottone
Second Innocent - Pumeza Matshikiza
Third Innocent - Wendy Dawn Thompson
Fourth Innocent - Christopher Ainslie
Fifth Innocent - Tim Mead
Theseus - Johan Reuter
The Minotaur - Sir John Tomlinson
Ker - Amanda Echalaz
Snake Priestess - Andrew Watts
Hiereus - Philip Langridge

Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House
Renata Balsadonna (chorus-master and second conductor)
Antonio Pappano (conductor)

Stephen Langridge (director)
Alison Chitty (designs)
Paul Pyant (lighting)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreographer)
Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer (video designs)

This was the fourth performance of The Minotaur. Only two performances remain , comprising a rather short run. Let us hope that this presages a swift revival, for the work and production certainly deserve it.

One should be very careful about voicing reservations after a single hearing; perhaps one should know better than even to make the attempt. However, I shall venture my single, tentative reservation at the outset, to get it over with. I wondered whether the opening, essentially the music up until the second toccata, was a little longer than it might have been. It may, of course, be that Sir Harrison Birtwistle will revise the work; such was his practice with Gawain. I felt that the drama was a touch slow-burning to begin with, although once it hit its stride, there really was no turning back. This seemed reflected in the performances, although again this was a matter of degree.

That said, this is, unsurprisingly, a fine score indeed, another instance of Birtwistle's genius in evoking the ancient world in all its complexity, in all its danger, in all its strangeness. It also sounded, again unsurprisingly for those who have followed his career, very English, at least in places. I do not of course mean this in the debased sense of the 'pastoral', which has been taken by some reactionaries to define Englishness. This is something more viscerally melancholic - if the combination makes sense - and more willing to treat English tradition, old and new, as part of Europe rather than cling to sentimental island-based canards. There was violence, not least in the terrific music of the Keres - wonderfully portrayed by a host of actresses - but there was tenderness too, and the presence of both intensified rather than detracted from the opposing tendencies. There was also a very strong sense of linear narrative, suggestive of Ariadne's thread, which might surprise those more cognisant of Birtwistle's earlier work. It was more marked, I thought, even than in Gawain, which presented something of a watershed in that respect. Perhaps the resistance to Beethovenian goal-orientation that has characterised so much of Birtwistle's oeuvre is lessening, in response to new challenges, perhaps partly born of his increasing fascination for Wagner. Some of the trademark Birtwistle sounds were there - the cimbalom reminiscent of his beloved Stravinsky and of Gawain, and the soaring alto saxophone, shadowing and perhaps inciting Ariadne - but there was nothing reheated about the orchestration. Instead, there was an abiding, oppressive force of Fate, utterly suited to the subject matter, and quite different from the relative optimism of The Io Passion. A characteristic attentiveness to the sounds and meanings of words, and carefully chosen - and thus extremely effective and affective - melismata were as noteworthy as in other Birtwistle vocal works.

The production seemed to me to serve the work very well indeed. I was perhaps slightly surprised by the straightforwardness of the tale's retelling, but then this was not The Mask of Orpheus. Stephen Langridge had clearly taken great care with his Personenregie, and this paid off handsomely. There was not one aspect of this with which I could find fault, even if so inclined. Alison Chitty's designs seemed perfect for the task: never intent on drawing attention to themselves, but clearly worked out in a commendably collaborative process with composer, librettist, and director - which is as it should be. The clutter that has characterised certain productions was banished from one's grateful imagination, leaving it to deal with the suggestive but never unduly spare staging Langridge, Chitty, and their other collaborators presented.

Birtwistle and Langridge were fortunate in their performers. The orchestra revelled in his taxing yet alluring score, as did Antonio Pappano, in what seemed to me perhaps the most impressive performance I have heard from his baton at Covent Garden. There were perhaps moments when I felt he held back the orchestra a little much in favour of the singers, but it is not difficult to appreciate why. The chorus handled Birtwistle's music and David Harsent's splendid words with aplomb, making of itself an essential part of the action, a duly nasty witness of bloodthirsty Minoan society. Of the Innocents who sang, I found the male voices - countertenors both of them - more impressive than the female.

Amanda Echalaz was quite spectacular leading her band of Keres: what a role, and what she made of it! All that hysterical swooping never forsook sound musical - indeed quite mathematical - fundamentals. Christine Rice garnered very warm applause as Ariadne. Yet, although she undoubtedly impressed in a difficult role, I found her to be unduly remote on occasion, and her diction was not always quite what it might have been. Johan Reuter was for me, if I had to choose, the more worthy recipient of praise. He had a fine stage presence with a voice to match, employed judiciously and with remarkable sensitivity to vocal shading. One does not have to shout to be heard in Birtwistle; one simply has to sing well. Philip Langridge and Andrew Watts were both outstanding in the extraordinary tenth scene ('The Oracle at Psychro'). Every aspect of their performances - whether musical or acted, or both - seemed both accurate and idiomatic. And then, of course, there was John Tomlinson in the title role. It may not surprise, but it should still register, that his was a triumphant portrayal of the 'half-and-half'. One could tell every word that he sang - and indeed notice on the odd occasion when it differed from the titles! - and every pitch at which he sang it. Not that there was anything pointillistic about his performance: it was strenuously lyrical and extremely moving. It is quite an achievement on the part of performer, composer, librettist, and production team to have made one empathise with the predicament of this character, mocked and turned violent by a vicious society, which, by failing to recognise his humanity, threatens to deprive him of it forever. Yet a signal and noble achievement this was. It culminated in a heart-rendingly intense death scene that could not but remind one of another towering assumption on Tomlinson's part: Boris Godunov.