Harrison Birtwistle’s large-scale operas have not travelled a great deal, so it is good that his Gawain will be staged at the Salzburg Festival this summer (in place of a new opera by another composer that is not going to be ready in time). Twenty years since the premiere, this is not too soon.
In the meantime, The Minotaur, given its premiere in 2008, is back at the Royal Opera House for its first revival. Awesome, forbidding, an opera of unremitting dark power, it is not an easy evening’s entertainment, but Birtwistle’s voice is so compelling, and the production so arresting, that the slowly unfolding drama never lets go.
The timeless ritual of ancient Greek theatre has long attracted Birtwistle. Like Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex or his own incidental music for Aeschylus’s Oresteia, The Minotaur is part of a line that seeks to reach back to an older, more formal type of theatre. Poet David Harsent has fashioned an evocative libretto, which plays as a re-enactment of the myth in which Theseus slays the half-man, half-bull monster. Likewise, Stephen Langridge’s simple but striking production skilfully blends ancient and modern, placing the Minotaur in a circular lair, like the orchestra of a Greek theatre (or a bull-ring) and overseen by a masked Chorus.
The opera looks good and sounds overwhelming. Birtwistle’s music moves at a slow, inexorable pace, piling up sounds that hang in the air, such as dark clouds of strings or the long, wailing cries of the woodwind, interrupted when drama calls by explosive percussion and drums played by musicians outside the pit. It is hardly a seductive score, but its menacing atmosphere was very powerfully realised by the Royal Opera orchestra under conductor Ryan Wigglesworth.
A strong cast has largely been re-assembled from the premiere, led by Christine Rice as Ariadne and Johan Reuter as Theseus. Elisabeth Meister lets rip some fearsome singing as Ker and Andrew Watts and Alan Oke combine to fine effect in the visit to the oracle, one of the opera’s most potent scenes. Over all, though, towers the Minotaur of John Tomlinson, a superhuman presence even as his voice gets rusty. This set of performances marks Tomlinson’s 35th anniversary with the Royal Opera, an impressively long-running saga of his own.