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Opera on DVD

The Minotaur, Birtwistle

Amanda Echalaz (Ker), Rebecca Bottone (First Innocent), Pumeza Matshikiza (Second Innocent), Christine Rice (Ariadne), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Third Innocent), Andrew Watts (Snake Princess), Christopher Ainslie (Fourth Innocent), Tim Mead (Fifth Innocent), Philip Langridge (Hiereus), Johan Reuter (Theseus), John Tomlinson (Minotaur), Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, c. Antonio Pappano, p. Stephen Langridge, d. Alison Chitty, video directors Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. Opus Arte OA1000D (175 minutes)


Only months after its acclaimed inaugural run at Covent Garden, Harrison Birtwistle’s opera is now available on DVD. The work’s transition to high-definition video is marvellously achieved. Though unambiguously a filmed performance—it opens with views of the seated, expectant audience and the pit orchestra, and ends with a full roster of curtain calls—the opera’s incarnation on DVD never appears stilted or ‘stagey’; besides, the production’s contrasting plays of colour and light could hardly have looked better if they had been devised expressly for the film. The sound qualities of the recording are also outstanding, capable of revealing—in all its shocking majesty—the detail, subtlety and visceral power of Birtwistle’s extraordinary score.

Setting out from an opening whose sounds are surely among the darkest and most ominous ever to have marked the start of an opera, the music remains alarming and intensely dramatic throughout. It rumbles, gnashes and clatters, its character seemingly broken and denatured, as befits a drama so steeped in primal brutishness, brutality and blood. Yet this is not without respite: while the colours of the cimbalom, pounding percussion, growling tubas and contrabass clarinet help convey a sense of menace, lyrical saxophone lines shadow Ariadne, extending her song and reaching beyond, like her own unfulfilled longing. Moreover, in an opera brimming with meaningful complexity, the availability of subtitles is a real boon. David Harsent’s libretto is a marvel of economy and poetic nuance, which can now assume a more vivid presence than is likely in the opera house.

Entirely in keeping with Birtwistle’s music, Stephen Langridge’s production unfolds the drama unfussily, with clarity and directness. No less admirable are Alison Chitty’s sets and costume designs, marked by simplicity, cleanness of line and sharpness of intent—a remarkable feat, given that the lighting veers between a dim, watery sunshine and near darkness. (In Ariadne’s words, ‘The sun that shines here is dark/ The moon is a blind eye.’) Much of this is achieved through brilliantly canny illumination: sleight of hand on a theatrical scale. The production is replete with strikingly memorable images, among them a gigantic oracle, her enormous, naked breasts looming above the supplicant; rear projections of a slow sea-swell, heaving like the lungs of a huge monster, but also as opaque and mysterious as the unconscious; and winged Keres, who suddenly appear like vultures after every kill and gorge upon the dead. But the central and most riveting image is the remarkable bull’s head worn by the Minotaur: monstrous in some lights, in others it reveals the human visage inside. The production handles the opera’s many dramatic transitions quite wonderfully—the Minotaur’s sudden first appearance, for instance, where what happens within the music is marvellously echoed by what is revealed on stage.

All the singers sound entirely at ease with Birtwistle’s difficult score, and the acting is always convincing. Occupying the fraught, contradictory, complex heart of the opera, John Tomlinson is quite magnificent as Asterios, the Minotaur. He both sings and carries himself in ways that unfailingly signify the duality, the ‘torn-ness’, of Asterios’s man-beast nature, as well as the creature’s attendant feelings, whether savage or (in his own words) ‘all too human’. Christine Rice is a powerful, imposing, seductive Ariadne. This is the opera’s biggest role, and she sings luminously throughout, her mezzo an utterly winning combination of strength, freshness and warmth. And she looks wonderful in the part. Johan Reuter’s Theseus sounds and seems every inch the hero; his singing has qualities of virility and humanity, and as the fated monster-slayer his stage presence is entirely credible.

Andrew Watts is an imposing Snake Princess (the oracle), and Philip Langridge a committed and incisive Hiereus. Amanda Echalaz confirms her growing reputation, imbuing the role of the leader of the Keres with an authentic sense of terror. Under Antonio Pappano, the orchestra’s playing is resplendent and finely controlled. There are extras, too—notably a series of intelligent interviews with several of the work’s most significant creative personnel, including of course the composer.    

(c) CHRISTOPHER BALLANTINE



Wexford Festival 2014
Opera Awards in association with OPERA Magazine