James L. Zychowicz
, March 2010
Premiered on 15 April 2008, The Minotaur
is Harrison Birtwistle’s latest opera, and it stands well with the composer’s other stage work.
This disc is based on later performances of the opera, which were given on 25 and 30 April and 3 May 2008 and released on Blu-Ray in 2010. The work is a retelling of the myth of the Cretan minotaur, specifically the culmination of the story in which the Greek hero Theseus survives the labyrinth and rescues Ariadne from the legendary beast. With its libretto in English by David Harsent, the text is a modern retelling, which presents the story in plain and direct terms; the music, as related in the accompanying booklet, has its origins in various sources, including Birtwistle’s Earthdances (1985). The Minotaur also resembles the two-part structure of the composer’s well-known opera Gawain and the Green Knight (2000), a narrative in which a hero also encounters a legendary figure, and in doing so reaches new perspectives about himself. At the same time The Minotaur is an opportunity of the composer to return to the milieu of classical mythology, which he had explored in The Mask of Orpheus (1984).
The Minotaur is a substantial work of about three hours, and its two parts contain a series of scenes in which the story unfolds, starting with the monologue of Ariadne, whose unique perspective offers Theseus an advantage in dealing with the Minotaur. The scenes reflect a structure in which ideas recur, as shown in the following outline: Part 1: (1) Arrival; Toccata 1; (2) The Choice; (3) The Labyrnith; (4) Ariadne; (5) The Labyrinth; Toccata 2; (6) The Minotaur dreams; (7) The Labyrinth; [Intermission]; Part 2: (8) A proposition; Toccata 3; (9) The Minotaur dream; (10) The oracle of Psychro; (11) A blind bargain; (12) The Labyrinth; (13) The death of the Minotaur. The instrumental toccatas function like the instrumental interludes in Berg’s Wozzeck and also allow the audience an opportunity to reflect on the text just presented. Toccata 1, for example, shows Theseus contemplating the situation at the outset in a particularly intriguing juxtaposition with the undulating sea with which the opera opens. The latter image recurs with Toccata 2, which also precedes the first episode of the Minotaur dreaming. The Minotaur, who is actually Ariadne’s half-brother Asterios, refers to the sea, which seems to be a form of escape to the world outside the Labyrinth in which he is imprisoned. The Labyrinth itself is a kind of arena, and the crowd looking on jeers at the Minotaur as much as they comment on the battles with the prisoners in the Labyrinth, with Ariadne seemingly officiating, sometimes from the seats above, other times from the floor of the arena.
One of the more effective scenes is scene 12, the final evocation of the Labyrinth, the projection of a maze being drawn around the stage and framing John Tomlinson as the Minotaur is particularly effective. This leads to the final confrontation in which Theseus slays the Minotaur, and in dying Asterios the Minotaur recovers his humanity. This work is an exploration of personal discovery, and the music functions as a vehicle for the text, while also serving as a means of setting the tone. The sometimes percussive music conveys a sense of the brutal forces at work in this score. While it is difficult to assign any number a kind of aria or arioso character, the music nevertheless allows for some expressive passages, as with the Minotaur’s final monologue, which is key to understanding this fable. If this death scene is prolonged, a convention in opera, it is to call attention to the nature of the Minotaur and the way in which the environment of the Labyrinth contributed to his own self-definition. Theseus may have slain the Minotaur, but that act is not the focus of this work. However heroic one may wish Theseus to be, that is not his function in Birtwistle’s opera, where the famed Greek hero serves as the vehicle of fate and the fulfiller of a bargain with Ariadne. Again, Birtwistle’s score is key to setting the tone, with concepts expressed in text underscored by the accompanying music. The whole is good drama, a stage work that engages the audience in the quest for self-discovery through the final moment, when the Harpy who brought the first part of the work to its conclusion makes the final gesture. Ariadne, whose actions influenced the dénouement, has already worked out her fate, with THeseus serving as her instrument in bringing the Cretan Labyrinth to its conclusion.
The principals are uniformly effective, with Christine Rice standing out as Ariadne, who embodies her character. For this work, Birtwistle has fleshed out the character of Ariadne more fully than some composers have depicted her, an element that requires the finesse Rice brings through her singing and acting. As Theseus, Johan Reuter is also persuasive, but it is John Tomlinson who remains memorable in creating the image of the Minotaur and giving him voice. Through the artifice of the costume, Tomlinson contributes a sense of humanity to this mythic creature, a crucial aspect of this work. The chorus itself works well within the staging, as they serve as commentators on the scenes and also contribute to the setting.
This recording benefits from the high-definition imaging of Blu-Ray technology, along with excellent sound, which serve well to preserve the details of this premiere recording. The sometimes dark sets, especially the opening sea-blues, emerge with definition in this medium, and that helps to give a sense of being present at the performances. The crisp images help to bring the sense of immediacy to the staging, with the details bringing the costumes and sets into the overall effect of this well-thought production. More importantly, the clear images of the performers are preferable to the sometimes distant shots of singers involved with some opera videos. In a similar way, the clarity of the sound helps to bring out the distinctions of timbre that Birtwistle used in his score. The English-language text is always distinct, and reinforced by the subtitles in English, German, French, and Italian.
The disc also includes a documentary about the opera, Myth Is Universal, which offers some useful perspectives for rehearing the work. Those interested in the opera can also use the synopsis, which serves as a fine introduction to the opera in the manner of a plot summary found in the programs of live operas. As a whole these elements work together to introduce and explicate an important new score, a successful new opera on an ancient theme, and this recording preserves in fine sonic and visual detal the staging with which it premiered.