The Minotaur

Review by Polly Hope

Harrison Birtwhistle.

The Royal Opera House. Covent Garden. London. Spring 2008
Revew by Polly Hope. London.

Wow! What a vast crashing, thunderous and literally earth shaking new work on offer. The media has been drooling with excitement about this one. It isn’t often that one of our eminent musical knights produces a work on such a grand scale. We don’t get a brand new opera by a senior composer mounted in lavish style at our poshest venue very often. A big night at the opera.

Total silence and complete darkness as the lights go down in the golden auditorium. Not even a glow in the orchestra pit, though somehow the conductor Antonio Pappano manages to creep to his podium.

From then on it is all a magnificent show. Really the star of the production is Alison Chitty the designer, so please allow me to start there. The stage is bare, just a wooden circle taking up most of the stage. A long thin sandpit runs across the footlights. The cyclorama opens and closes horizontally so sometimes with we are in the total dark of the labyrinth and sometimes on a Cretan beach at sunrise. A blue neon strip light bends along the edge of the horizon. It all works, the lighting is excellent and a sense of ancient myth is there. Production trick after production trick enchants us. The designer’s work is magical and sumptuous even though skeleton bare.

The direction of Stephen Langridge is also fine. It all works. The characters are clearly defined and well acted. They sing, or rather howl, perfectly. Christine Rice is a mean and buxom Ariadne in a trailing grey dress. Johan Reuter is not a very sexy Theseus but sings well. And dear old John Tomlinson inside a bull’s head is just what you might expect a Minotaur to sing like, lots of roaring.

The revolting blood thirsty Keres shriek to perfection and the chorus arranged on a wooden circular wall that comes and goes do their commenting very well.

For me the problem is the music; it is just so continuously noisy. The orchestra is enormous and flows out of the orchestra pit and half way round the stalls circle. Two huge percussion sections and an equally vast brass section certainly make an unworldly clamour. The sounds are colossal; Wagner’s orchestration is a mouse squeak in comparison. Of course this being modern opera there is nothing so enticing as a melody. Everyone shrieks from beginning to end of the work. Antonio Pappano somehow controls the thunder and brilliantly manages to balance the sound so that the humans can even be heard. Not the words of course, we have sous titles for them thankfully, even though the work is sung in English, though you could have fooled me.

Ultimately with so much noise one is simply deafened. This wouldn’t matter but it kills the emotion. We simply do not care what happens to these howling unmelodious creatures. The sound is relentless with nary a of moment of respite.

Were all those ancient Greek mythical creatures quite so nasty? Was Ariande just using Theseus as an escape mechanism? Was Theseus just out there looking for hero status for political ends? Was the Minotaur quite so blood crazed? Maybe he was simply a deformed infant who had been thrown in some dark Cretan hole as a child and had somehow survived? The Innocents, who arrive as food for the Minotaur, seem pretty weak, there are plenty of them and they could easily have knocked down the Minotaur down if they tried.

If and when opera really works these conundrums don’t even get asked. One accepts the language and the world one is watching at that performance. Here it is difficult to accept the protagonists as possible people. THE MINOTAUR is a vast production, but it is ultimately just a decorative show with too much backing sound. Opera shouldn’t be like this, surely one should be crying at the end when so many lovely people have been killed and the stage runs with blood? But nobody cares. Young persons next to me were joking about what they were going to have for supper after watching the Keres tear so many dripping hearts out. The audience simply didn’t care as they watched Theseus perform as a comic book hero. An intellectual stunner maybe; a deeply moving work of art, never.