The Minotaur, Royal Opera House, London

Great show, shame about the libretto

The premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘The Minotaur’ sent out shock-waves. The story was an old one: Theseus arrives in Crete with a boat-load of young Athenians to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, but he will kill the half-man-half-bull, and Ariadne will show him the way. What was new was Birtwistle’s take: inspired by the death-aria in ‘Boris Godunov’, he would get us to consider the monster’s human half, to share its pain. Designer Alison Chitty’s sets had a rugged simplicity which sat perfectly with Birtwistle’s vision, creating a part-virtual bull-ring in which this subversively appealing creature could kill, dream, lament, and finally be killed.

Five years on, a revival allows us to reconsider those first impressions. And as the overture’s great surges of sound body forth the projection of sea-swell on the front-drop - with the percussion spilling into boxes on either side of the pit – one realises anew what an orchestral master Birtwistle is.

Mezzo Christine Rice is back in the role of Ariadne, with baritone Johan Reuter returning to the role he created as Theseus; we have to wait a while before encountering the bass John Tomlinson, for whom the work was conceived as a vehicle, as the tortured protagonist; one couldn’t wish for a better trio of singer-actors. So why, given all this plus such a coruscating score, was the first half hour so wooden? The answer lay in David Harsent’s libretto, poetic in a sub-Ted Hughes sort of way, and painfully keen to draw attention to its own literary cleverness. At times the pseudo-profundities on the surtitle-screen seemed to dictate events on stage, rather than allowing drama to develop; Reuter’s heroic efforts to round out his two-dimensional character were in vain, while Rice was expected to breathe life into some exceptionally lumpen tracts of exposition.

But whenever the action moved into the bull-ring, a dark magic took over, with the masked spectators becoming an unearthly chorus, the victims and the vultures being savagely choreographed, the Snake Goddess (countertenor Andrew Watts) appearing on stilts like a dea ex machina, and with the monster moving, speaking, and singing with enormous poignancy. No praise too high for Ryan Wigglesworth’s conducting, or for Rice’s performance – centre-stage virtually the whole evening – while Tomlinson himself got a massive birthday cake after his ovation, in recognition of 35 triumphant years on the Covent Garden stage.