The Minotaur at the Royal Opera House, London
The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is so old it was already ancient when Plutarch wrote it down. It is one of the oldest stories we teach our children, much older than the Christian religion. A strange choice of subject, then, for a modernist composer to base an opera on, the more so because Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur does not, like Joyce’s Ulysses, transpose the story into the modern world, or find contemporary echoes in it. On the contrary, it seems to reach out, across the centuries, into a Greece so old it is half-forgotten.
David Harsent’s libretto focuses on the character of the Minotaur, or Asterios as he is referred to, granted his Cretan name, rather than his monstrous title. And by emphasising his half-human side, delving into his subconscious fears and yearnings, it could be said to be a modern take on the tale. Except the vision that is expressed here seems unremittingly ancient: Asterios the man is trapped inside the bull as certainly as the bass, John Tomlinson, is trapped inside the bull-mask.
It is his fate, inescapable, just as it is his certain destiny to die at the hand of Theseus, and nothing he does can alter it an inch. Neither can his desire to be human overcome the blood lust with which he kills the young men and women sent into the labyrinth.
This ancient world view meshes well with Birtwistle’s music. There are no tunes you’ll find yourself whistling on the way home in this opera. Instead, Birtwistle gives us a harsh, unrelenting score that builds menacingly to scenes of violence, but offers no moments of tenderness in reprieve. The music is at its most impressive when Asterios tries to speak but, the man in him overpowered by the bull, can only roar incoherently: you can hear the desire for coherence in the orchestration, only for it be drowned out by the percussion and Tomlinson’s great half-sung bellow.
This is in contrast to the scenes when Asterios is asleep, when a change in the lighting reveals the man’s head trapped within the bull’s, and Asterios subconscious mind is able to speak, and sing, in a dialogue with himself as he tries to resolve his indentity. Yet as soon as he awakes the bull takes over again, in dramatically violent scenes where he gores his victims in front of an audience dressed as Greek chorus, whose presence inside the labyrinth is never explained, but who serve to bring out the bloodsport cruelty of the myth.
In these scenes, Birtwistle gives full rein to his love of percussion, even moving one of the timpanists onto the stage in full costume as part of the spectacle.
There is something ancient, too, in the opera’s depiction of Theseus and Ariadne. Modern audiences might see something of the feminist in its Ariadne, determined to get her own way and seduce her Theseus, even at the cost of betraying her father and her country.
But there seems more of the ancient Greek at work here: she is contrasted with Theseus’ awareness of his god-given, unalterable destiny. To him, woman is a snare along the way. But Ariadne is trying to have it all her way, to outwit the gods, even lying to the oracle — and even though the opera ends with Asterios’ death, and doesn’t show us the aftermath for Theseus and Ariadne, we know the story, and the betrayal that is to come on Naxos. Ariadne will not get her man.
Birtwistle makes considerable demands of his singers, and not all handle them as well as Tomlinson. While Christine Rice was never less than convincing as Ariadne, she seemed at times to struggle with the considerable range of the part, particularly at the lower end. She did, though, have the necessary power, while Johann Reuter as Thesues at times lacked the stage presence to keep pace with her.
Tomlinson, though, was the star — the part of Asterios was written for him — and he did not disappoint.
A strange marriage, then, between the asperities of ancient Greek legend and modernist music, jarring with the ornate backdrop of the Royal Opera House. Having rejected the conventions of classicism, and the Wagnerian excesses which followed it, modernist opera reaches back to the oldest stories of all to find a form for itself.