BIRTWISTLE The Minotaur
The speedy DVD release of new, or relatively new, operas – John Adams’s Doctor Atomic and Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland are two other recent examples – can only be applauded, as long as they’re not made the excuse for avoiding early revivals in the theatre. Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s latest large-scale music drama, written for Covent Garden, is a quite different experience on DVD: what might have been planned by composer and stage director to be witnessed from a distance is shown in unsparing close-up. But this seething, monumental reinvention of one of the most disquieting Greek myths – with a pithy libretto by David Harsent – is neither betrayed nor diminished by this excellent film.
Only in its final stages does the opera’s focus shift decisively to the doomed Minotaur from the scheming Ariadne, and the drama’s most essential point is that this Ariadne – as different from Strauss’s as Birtwistle’s Orpheus is different from Gluck’s – is in her own way as much of a monster as the half-man/half-bull. These demanding roles are projected with maximum musical eloquence by Christine Rice and Sir John Tomlinson, no doubt because – as Rice makes clear in the absorbing 30-minute documentary that accompanies the performance – what is demanding is also intensely rewarding to singers prepared to commit themselves to a steep learning curve. Equal commitment is evident in Johan Reuter’s Theseus, the conventions of heroic posturing given new depth and relevance in text, music and vocal acting alike.
The filming reinforces the strengths of Stephen Langridge’s tightly controlled, potently expressive production in an economical yet atmospheric setting, with the whole ensemble totally engaged in the drama’s dark enterprise. We see little of Antonio Pappano and his orchestra, but the excellent sound never lets us escape the inexorable magnetism of the instrumental continuum. As Stephen Langridge says in the documentary, this is “a very dark piece”, and a first hearing might not reveal its subtlety of pacing, the care it takes to avoid being merely unremitting. Repeated hearings underline that, in the end, this tragedy is the more convincing for the way its turn towards pathos does not involve any false consolation.