in media res

The Minotaur by giantinsect
April 22, 2008, 4:26 pm
Filed under: music, Patrick


On Monday night Anne and I went to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden to see Harrison Birtwistle’s new opera The Minotaur.

I greatly enjoyed it and Anne told me she did too. We were in the amphitheatre in the Royal Opera House and this was very high up, enough to give me a touch of vertigo, however I got used to it. I will go and see the production again when it next runs, which I’m sure it will, but then I will get a more expensive seat lower down in the balcony.

I don’t know the music at all for The Minotaur. Over the last year I have been listening to Birtwistle a lot, I have CDs of Punch and Judy and Theseus Game.

The music in The Minotaur has many very beautiful moments. There’s a lot of underlying dark mood stuff in the bass. Birtwistle constructs some marvellous things in his music. I’m looking forward to the CD when it comes out so that I can listen to it again.

The opera has a great deal of content. There’s lots there to think about methinks. It explores the darkest realms of human emotions.

As you probably have guessed despite all his goring the Minotaur (John Tomlinson) becomes quite a sympathetic character. His operatic howls are not so much of rage than of pain for his predicament. For me the Minotaur was reminiscent of the Elephant Man played by John Hurt in the film of that name. I felt sorry for the Minotaur and quite liked the idea of taking him home and adopting him as a pet. The Greek myth itself was always a bit undermined for me by the fact that bulls are vegetarians, however it is best to put such literal thoughts to one side and go with poetic licence.

The Minotaur has the power of speech in his dreams. I think it’s very clever really, the idea of being sentient only in dreams, but a beast when awake. The Minotaur also develops the power of speech at his point of death. This brings a new twist to the cliché of the opera character who, having been killed continues to sing away for twenty minutes or so. The Minotaur does this but as it is his first opportunity to speak outside of the dream state we happily give him licence to sing away.

The libretto (David Harsent) is a joy to hear and read. There are sur-titles and being in the amphitheatre I was staring right at them all night. I think that if the production goes to the US then some of the quality of the libretto won’t be understood as it does play very subtly on some quite specifically UK English usage. Many common expressions come up but they are given new depth and meaning. There are many very clever phrases and reconstructions of the way we say things, but now quite changed.

The set is minimalist but changes radically from one scene to another with just a bit of re-arrangement of the objects on stage, or at least it seems that way. There is highly imaginative use of lighting creating some very striking new environments for the action.

The opera contains many notable moments and scenes. Ariadne (Christine Rice) acts out her mother, Pasiphae giving birth to the Minotaur. There is almost nothing visual for this scene, Christine Rice simply sings and acts it out, the music and the libretto and her performance together are a hugely powerful combination. I think it is one of the most wholly monstrous things I’ve witnessed in any stage or film performance and yet it was achieved with apparently so little.

Another astonishing scene is when Ariadne visits the oracle. This is visually stunning. It does work but they took a massive risk because if it hadn’t worked it would have been fantastically camp. However at the point we come to this in the story we are totally spell-bound so we ‘go with’ this marvellous other-worldly experience.

Despite being relatively short, at a bit over two hours, the opera has left a very strong impression on me and I find myself frequently revisiting it in my imagination.


2 Comments so far
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I can’t say that I’m ‘into’ opera, but I must say that the pictures I have seen from this in the papers look amazing.

I wouldn’t fancy singing with that mask on though…

Comment by sam

Hi Sam

The mask was quite a light-weight construction. I think it was very thin fabric over a wire frame. When the Minotaur is in a dream state a light is turned on inside the mask so that we see the human head of John Tomlinson. For that to be possible I guess the fabric must be very thin.

Comment by giantinsect

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