Prometheus versus the Minotaur, part one

Wednesday 14 May 2008

As I was saying: the previous weekend I took the girlfriend to the Royal Opera House to see Harrison Birtwistle’s latest, and supposedly last, opera The Minotaur. In its music, structure, dramatic presentation, and high seriousness, The Minotaur is a direct descendant of Wagner’s musical dramas. The drama tells in stark, bold strokes the myth of the Minotaur Asterios, Ariadne and Theseus; its bluntness focuses the mind on the story’s ancient roots, while the modernity of its interpretation is found through what is omitted from the tale. The most telling moment comes at the end, when Theseus slays the monster. No more of the story is told, of Theseus return or Ariadne’s fate: we are left with the Minotaur dying alone, contemplating his doomed botch of a life.
All that is best in Birtwistle’s music is heard in this opera, as with his massive orchestral movement Earth Dances it has a relentless power to it, like a force of nature that can barely be repressed. In The Minotaur this force comes with greater subtlety and nuance; closer attention to the implacable drive of the score reveals a wealth of small details and shifting instrumental colours. The singers’ securely modernist melodic lines were surprisingly singable and clear despite their evident difficulty. It was hardly necessary to look at the surtitles to follow the libretto.
I wonder for how much longer we can expect new operas like this to be produced: so heavily reliant upon the traditional material support and performance tradition of the opera house, yet demanding from the musicians interpretive abilities from an avantgarde idiom alien to most opera repertory. It is a work that embraces the Western operatic heritage, but rejects the comfortable nostalgia that would allow it to be easily accepted into that heritage.
At times I was conscious of witnessing two historical cultures, the ancient Greek and the grand operatic. There were moments when both cultures strained against each other and the contemporary world, requiring a more conscious suspension of disbelief, but more often they spoke across the years with surprising clarity and directness.
With the exception of the Minotaur’s limited insight, the characters’ actions and motivations remained on the level of myths, unexplored and often curiously impassive. There was no need to burden them with psychological or political baggage; the drama’s measured pacing and unyielding music allowed the audience’s minds to meditate upon their emotional states and form their own responses.

(Tomorrow: part two, Luigi Nono’s Prometeo.)