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Harrison Birtwistle: The Minotaur

Christine Rice: Ariadne
John Tomlinson: The Minotaur
Johan Reuter: Theseus
Amanda Echalaz: Ker

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Antonio Pappano

Opus Arte DVD1000 D [175 mins]

A notable success in the opera house, this premiere production of Harrison Birtwistle's latest and last opera was seen on television and quickly issued on DVD by Opus Arte (which has been bought by the Royal Opera House) whilst the dark and disturbing experience remained fresh.

As with so many of Birtwistle's earlier operas, of which only the economically scored Punch and Judy has established itself in the repertoire and exists on video, The Minotaur is one which can only be grasped partially at a first hearing, and therefore (if you can stand it) should be ideal for repeated listening and viewing at home.

We have admired it, but after all the gore and noise of the latter part of the first Act, I have to confess a reluctance to move on to the Second; so this may be taken as an interim report.

The appearance of John Tomlinson as the Minotaur himself was perhaps the most enduring and haunting image, and his singing made for an empathy for this strange mythical man/beast anti-hero, his human head trapped in a cage.

The scene when he "finds his human voice" whilst dreaming is moving, but I have been pondering various oddities. One was being suddenly reminded of the misfit Peter Grimes at bay in the last Act of his opera...

Also puzzlement about the young Victims descending into the labyrinth/killing circle without being forced to. Once down there, surrounded by a large masked audience baying for blood, the actual "killing" is so ritualised as to be more like collective suicide. The devouring of flesh was entrusted to the scary Ker and her troupe, and all this was far more potent and revolting on screen than in the opera house, where we had found the orchestral sound muted from our seats under the next circle above, and the whole effect was far more distanced.

The filming is exemplary and the DVD is the more valuable for the inclusion of half an hour of substantial edited statements from those involved in the development of the production. There is nothing slick or glib about how they are presented; librettist, composer, designer and protagonist (Ariadne) each are shown thinking aloud to try to articulate their perceptions and tell us of the long, interactive collaboration which began before words or music began to be written, neither Harsent nor Birtwistle bound by preconceptions of what it would become. But we are left very much outsiders to the world of Greek myth which absorbs them under its spell.

We learn that to evolve the very appearance of the Minotaur took many months of joint discussions between all concerned, including Tomlinson himself. It became central to the whole opera and its effect on the sensibilities of an audience for whom myth and its varied recreations are important, deep aspects of life. That was persuasively expressed by Christine Rice in describing the preparation of her part, during which she declined to seek alterations which might have made the singing easier.

Another advantage of DVD is that the (optional) text on screen does not divide attention from the stage, as do surtitles in the opera house. Diction is fairly good, but seeing the words too does help; Johan Reuter as Theseus (see his interview with Musical Criticism) does occasionally betray his Danish origins.

I will steel myself to see Act Two in a few days, but cannot think that this is a DVD to which I shall return for 'pleasure', or whatever it is meant to be.

First, let's look forward to DVDs of The Mask of Orpheus, Gawain, The Last Supper and The Second Mrs Kong if films exist. or otherwise when they get revived, as assuredly will happen, even if not in UK, whose major opera houses are more inclined to move on to the new than to revive back-catalogue works by no longer young contemporary composers.

* * * * * *

Emboldened to return to The Minotaur a week on, I found the shorter second act also more home-viewing friendly.

Putting aside their inscrutable mythic beings, the trapped "siblings" Ariadne and Asterios explained their predicaments, only the Minotaur achieving final quietus in the death he seemed to seek (he didn't put up a real struggle) as relief from his equivocal family history and unsatisfactory life-style, caged and dominated by self-disgust, lust and hatred, David Harsent's metaphor for - what? Again the killing took place surrounded by a sinister masked audience; us?

The lengthy monologues and duologues are better on the small domestic screen and the killing is less gory, indeed almost symbolic, with John Tomlinson expressing himself in elaborate poetic language (how did he acquire it?) whether in dream or when faced by his dedicated killer and, helped to convey his predicament by his fetching costume to show the man's soul, maybe, within the beast's body. Ariadne is tricked to remain even more alone (apart from the blood-thirsty crowds down in the maze-arena - what will happen to them?) than when she had Asterios as a strange companion. Theseus becomes a far from attractive "anti-hero", if that is what we are to take him for...

The music swims over it all evocatively, much of its complexity inevitably passing us by, and I return to my hope that we will soon have an opportunity to revisit Birtwistle's earlier and more engaging operas, which need reviving.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Musical Pointers reviews The Minotaur at Covent Garden: www.musicalpointers.co.uk/reviews/liveevents08/PunchJudy_YVic.html#minotaur