A revival at Covent Garden of Birtwistle's most recent opera, The Minotaur? Time to take the bull by the horns and see it.
I'm still reeling.
There have been some complaints in other quarters about David Harsent's libretto, but that seems a bizarre response. It's not only sterling-quality poetry, full of images that would flare at high voltage even without the music, but it also has indubitable advantages of strong structure, absolute clarity, concentration and concision that many libretti lack, and that the genre absolutely needs. Every word carries the weight of a hundred, and that's as it should be. It is light years away from the verbose pretentiousness of The Death of Klinghoffer, the extended tracts of book that weighed down Sophie's Choice, the mundane cosy prose of Miss Fortune.
It's loud. Very loud. The percussion spills over on both sides of the stalls circle. The orchestration is remarkable - despite the volume and depth of the music, its is so well written that there is never any problem of balance between singers and instrumentalists. Birtwistle's sonic imagination was what stayed with me most strongly after seeing The Second Mrs Kong about 20 years ago and in this quality The Minotaur doesn't disappoint, however different it is. One of the most inspired touches is the use of the cimbalom, its hard-edged fury jangling the nerves and cutting into the monolithic textures.
This performance was one of those rare occasions when music, text,
design and performance fuse into one: it's hard to imagine it staged any
differently, or sung any better. John Tomlinson, Christine Rice and
Johann Reiter are the original trio of Asterios, Ariadne and Theseus,
each a masterful interpretation with a timbre that encapsulates his/her
character and offsets the others. Elizabeth Meister is a terrifying
coloratura Ker, the steely-winged vulture. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth,
taking over a very tall order from Tony Pappano, who's off with
tendonitis, did a magnificent job with it. Grand plaudits to the whole team - director Stephen Langridge, designer Alison
Chitty, video company 59 Productions, movement director Philippe
Giraudeau, lighting designer Paul Pyant.
I've spent much time in the past few days writing about The Rite of Spring (watch this space). Seeing The Minotaur with The Rite in my ears and mind was intriguing in itself. It seems to me that they share a certain wellspring, dragging us through something subconscious, something mesmerising concerning ritual, mortality, cruelty and that crucial compassion.
It's tempting to wonder what makes someone create an opera like this. Why would anyone attempt to write the last scene of the first half, death after sacrificial death in the bullring, the Keres descending to devour the flesh? I can just imagine asking Sir Harry about it, though, and receiving a response not unlike that of Jerome Kern when someone asked him what made him write 'Ol' Man River', which was originally in Showboat. He's supposed to have said: "I needed something to end Act 1 Scene 3."
Twelve hours after curtain-down I need serious coffee and I need it now.