La philosophie dans le labyrinthe, Munich Biennale

We hear the Minotaur’s breath before we see him – deep, panting gasps. He is one of us, an audience member, a man. As he stands and moves towards the stage, he dons a bull headdress. The first notes he sings are a deep, animal growl: primal, threatening. Then the voice ascends, rich and inflected. Stripping to a scrap of loincloth, the minotaur sings of reaching down his own throat to pull out a naked man. We sense brutality and loneliness.

The world premiere of Aureliano Cattaneo’s La philosophie dans le labyrinthe (Philosophy in the Labyrinth) at the Munich Biennale on Tuesday was a rare union of sensuality with complexity. New opera on the Continent, in its haste to leave behind literary narrative, often becomes so cerebral that enjoyment is not a requisite response. Cattaneo’s opera, although intricate, is so action-packed and so intensely physical that its 75 minutes pass in a rush of pleasure.

Edoardo Sanguineti’s libretto is a convoluted compilation of earlier poems reinvented in the form of its labyrinthine subject. King Minos discusses his labyrinth with his queen Pasiphaë and with its architect, Daedalus. The Minotaur meets a male and a female sacrificial victim. Theseus kills the Minotaur. Each encounter is told and retold on successive levels, laden with innuendo, dream and reality intertwined. La philosophie dans le labyrinthe is scored for virtuoso chamber ensemble, a quartet of singers and three dancers. The music is full of whispered secrets and dizzying spirals, gossamer effects and sybaritic surprises. Cattaneo has an assured sense of architecture, a feel for dramatic pace, fine aesthetic sensibilities and plenty to say.

Michael Scheidl’s production is everything you could wish for in a first performance of an unknown work: pared back, spare, yet full of breathtakingly beautiful images, it collates all the work’s abundant references into a new kind of visceral logic. Laurent Okroglic’s line-drawing video animations are an integral part of the whole, episodic interludes in which images from the Minotaur’s life are unfurled.

The cast sings superbly, with Michael Leibundgut’s performance as the Minotaur particularly striking for its vast expressive range and poise. Klangforum Wien’s playing under Aureliano Cattaneo is dazzling, and the dancers (choreography: Takako Suzuki) send yet another beguiling layer to the whole. ★★★★★

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