The gods look down and laugh

Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2008 and got a DVD and Blu-ray release on Opus Arte not long after. It’s the sort of work I’m susceptible to. It’s a truly integrated music drama based on a classical, indeed universal, theme carried off without any kowtowing to current ideas of trendiness. I’ve watched it a few times now and like most modern works of substance it reveals more with a bit of time and effort.

Librettist David Harsent’s take on the Minotaur myth is not at odds with versions many people will be familiar with (though whether in this day and age I’m not at all sure it’s safe to assume, as Harsent does, that “people are going in with a basic knowledge of the story”) but it does add some interesting ideas. His Minotaur, Asterios in this story, is articulate as a human only in his dreams and his dying moments. At these times he sings in English. As the awake monster in the Labyrinth he is restricted to inarticulate grunts. Also original is Harsent’s take on the relationship between Theseus and Ariadne. He sees this as a thoroughly corrupt relationship based on mutual need but riddles with disgust rather than love and so looking forward to the abandonment on Naxos. It works rather well. With those concepts in place we get a pretty straightforward account of the standard myth with some thoroughly brutal scenes of Asterios killing (and in one case raping) the Innocents in the Labyrinth to the blood curdling encouragement of a masked chorus of spectators. Another non-canonical addition at this point is the introduction of the truly horrific Keres who appear to feast on the bodies and the souls of the victims. It all leads up naturally to the death of Asterios at the hands of Theseus.

Birtwistle’s score is dense, multilayered and uncompromising. It’s clearly Birtwistle and makes no concessions to the current trend to try and make opera sound like a Broadway show. It’s not an easy listen but it repays a bit of effort and contains many interesting and deft ideas. For example Ariadne is paired throughout with the alto saxophone. Sometimes it takes up her singing line and carries it forward, sometimes it doubles her line and so on but nowhere does the saxophone interact with any other character. There’s a similar relationship between Theseus and the more conventional woodwind elements of the orchestra.

The design and direction; Alison Chitty and Stephen Langridge respectively, are very well integrated and are brilliantly supported by the lighting design of Paul Pyant. The result is some quite striking stage imagery that supports the changing moods of the piece really well. They also give us the mask that Asterios wears. It’s a framework affair so depending on the lighting Asterios can be fully beast or his human face under the mask can be made more present. It’s subtle and effective.

The performances are pretty much flawless. John Tomlinson, as Asterios, excels in a piece created for him. Christine Rice as Ariadne manages some really difficult music and a really long sing (she’s on stage nearly all the time) equally well. Johan Reuter (Theseus) has slightly off English intonation but sings powerfully and acts well. There are some excellent performances in the minor roles. For my money the best of these is the First Innocent of Rebecca Bottone who manages to look incredibly fragile but totally convincing during what is perhaps the most visceral scene of all where she is raped and killed by Asterios. There are very good cameos too from Amanda Echalaz as Ker and Philip Langridge as Hiereus. Antonio Pappano conducts and gets the necessary out of both orchestra and chorus.

The video direction is very good indeed. It appears to be a joint effort by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. The balance of setting shots and close ups is judicious and the close ups aren’t too close. They eschew silly camera angles. The picture on Blu-ray is 16:9 1080i and very good indeed. Sound is DTS 5.0 HD Master Audio and presents a vivid sound picture with good depth and breadth (PCM stereo also available). There are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The documentation includes a useful essay on the music and the disk has a 32 minute “Making of” documentary that is more informative than most of its kind.

All in all, this is a very impressive work, beautifully realised on stage and well presented on disk.

For the record the Opus Arte trailer and the whole piece are available on YouTube but the AV quality is appalling.