Inventing new myths exceeds the power of an individual artist; adding new layers to old ones may be the most to be hoped for. Harrison Birtwistle's new opera The Minotaur, which received its premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2008, harps on the possibility that the monster in the maze — half man, half bull — and Theseus, who slays him, are both sons of Poseidon. The third star in the fateful constellation is Ariadne, half-sister (through their mother) to the Minotaur and keeper of the labyrinth that is his prison. Jagged with shrieks and bird calls, the dark, densely layered instrumental writing seems to flow from archaic wellsprings, exploding and seething by turns. The fiercely communicative vocal music is no less various.
David Harsent's libretto strikes the mythic chord by means of simplicity, both in language and in action. In Act I, Ariadne awaits the latest shipload of sacrificial youths and maidens chosen by lot, tribute from Athens. They arrive, crazed with terror. Theseus has joined them of his own free will, to vanquish the monster or die in the attempt. Ariadne intervenes, and the designated victims descend into the lair, where they are ravaged. In Act II, Ariadne gives Theseus access to the maze, a weapon and a means of escape (the famous ball of thread). He, in exchange, promises that if he lives, he will embark with her for Athens. He descends, the monster succumbs, and the curtain falls. (As we know from many sources, Ariadne will set sail for Athens but never arrive.)
A more authoritative performance than that of the original cast, under the baton of Antonio Pappano, will be a long time coming. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice gives blazing expression to Ariadne's pent-up rage and shame without missing her notes of fatalism and guile. Bass-baritone Johan Reuter lends the monolithic heroics of Theseus their needed weight of dread. But John Tomlinson's Minotaur is simply on another plane. In his "public" scenes of slaughter, he brays in nonsense syllables from within a huge bull's head, like Fafner gone berserk. In a pair of private dream sequences, he sings in English, unraveling his destiny as best he can, his tormented lyricism and longing interrupted by the cold, terse interjections of a speaking voice (also Tomlinson's). And here, the spotlight shines through the mask to reveal the human face. That Ariadne and Theseus appear in these dreams as well (as emanations? as fellow victims of an unfathomable will?) only deepens the oceanic pathos of the scenes.
The production by Stephen Langridge, designed by Allison Chitty, evokes universals in simple forms — a strip of sand, the head of a bronze heifer, a wooden disc, a few ladders, and bleachers around the Minotaur's arena, peopled by onlookers baying for blood. Bands of bright color serve to define the horizon, the time of day and shifting moods; orchestral interludes are accompanied by projections of a churning sea. The attack of tattered, winged harpies to feast on the hearts of the victims is the stuff of nightmares. In Act II, Ariadne's consultation with the Snake Priestess (countertenor Andrew Watts) and Hiereus, interpreter of her prophetic jabber (tenor Philip Langridge, father of the director), heightens the suspense while adding to the score's barbarous splendors.
Jonathan Haswell is credited as film director. In the dream sequences, which involve one-way mirrors, it can be hard to figure out just what is happening on the stage. Other than that, the DVD offers a lucid document of what in the opera house must have been a harrowing experience.
Rice; Tomlinson, Reuter, Watts, P. Langridge; Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Pappano. Production: S. Langridge. Opus Arte 1000 D (2 discs), 175 mins., subtitled.