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Opera Goes Home to Ancient GreeceFeb. 5 2011
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The 16th Century Florentine humanists who first conceived the genre of music-theater we call opera had a 'model' for what they wanted to create. They aspired to combine drama-in-words, music to affectively enhance those words, dance/pantomime and staging, with the goal of public 'catharsis' such as they supposed was the function of the Athenian tragedies of Euripedes and Sophocles. Many of their speculations about the staging of Greek theater have been contradicted by latter scholarship, but their bold concept of music-theater took on its own evolution in the operas of the 17th and 18th Centuries - from Monteverdi to Cherubini - the vast majority of which feature librettos based on Greek mythology or Roman history. Composer Harrison Birtwistle and librettist David Harsent return to Greek mythology for the story of the Minotaur, the half-man half-bull monster imprisoned in the Labyrinth; they also return, to my mind, to the foundational concept of the Renaissance humanists, of opera as a cathartic ritual achieved through the synthesis of the arts.
In other words, this is an opera that aims high, that wants to affect its audience intellectually and emotionally rather than merely to entertain. And it's a fearsome spectacle on stage, with the vulture-women Keres ripping hearts from the Minotaur's victims and smearing themselves with blood. Their shrieks are a far cry from the bourgeois comforts of Puccini, as are the howls and groans of the Minotaur and the agonized wails of the Athenian children sent as tribute victims to be slain by the Minotaur. Combined with an orchestral score of strident saxophones and thunderous percussion, the vocal violence of the non-humans ratchet the sensory impact of this opera far higher than anything polite opera audiences ordinarily expect. "The Minotaur" is a hair-raising spectacle, in other words, and the premiere audience at the Royal Opera House in London roared with appreciation at the curtain calls.
Birtwistle's music is more intuitive than theoretical; he's neither a serialist nor a minimalist. He acknowledges the influence of Messaien, and his vocal lines will remind listeners of Benjamin Britten. He's been known to compose a piece of music, then cut the score in pieces - literally, with a scissors - and realign them arbitrarily, but his music is clearly not aleatoric. Instead it's symmetrical and 'considered' in its progressions. Above all, it's EXCITING, but don't expect to hear it 'architecturally', as harmonic development.
Modern English opera has struggled mightily with language, striving for a level of elevated diction to mark the intensity of its musical idiom. Benjamin Britten and his librettist achieved that goal in his greatest opera, Peter Grimes, but missed it painfully (to my ears at least) in Billy Budd. Birtwistle and Harsent achieve it in The Minotaur, though it will surely strike traditionalists more as 'canto brutto' than as 'bel canto.'
The Minotaur is the focal character of this opera, though Ariadne and Theseus both sing more music. It's the half-man beast that suffers humanly, that grows in self-awareness, that eventually engages the audience's sympathy despite its rage and brutality. Ariadne and Theseus are odiously self-involved opportunists, Theseus enshrining himself in his own role as a hero, Ariadne sprawling on the stage with thighs spread in anticipation of rapturous effacement, exactly as her mother had spread her thighs to receive Poseidon in the form of a bull.
[Unfortunately, modern audiences cannot be presumed to 'know' their Greek mythology as Monteverdi's or Cherubini's audience would have. If you don't know the rest of the story, what happened to Ariadne and Theseus after the slaying of the Minotaur, you will be puzzled by the narrative of this opera and disturbed by its 'unfinished' conclusion. Do yourself a favor before watching it; search wikipedia for the three principals. That 'conclusion' is exactly what it should be, since it's the Minotaur who has the last 'words.']
John Tomlinson sings and howls the role of the Minotaur, in a costume of theatrical genius. Christine Rice and Johan Reuter sing the roles of Ariadne and Theseus. These are astoundingly demanding roles, of the sort that will make you wonder how anyone could possibly memorize such strange musical phrases, and the three principals all sing superbly. Rice and Reuter are slightly less impressive as actors -- a little podgy and hesitant in movement - but their voices and the visual drama of the sets and lighting are enough to keep the excitement churning.
Simple recommendation: see and hear it! on stage if possible -- and I think this is an opera that will hold the stage, will become standard repertoire -- but don't hesitate to order this Blu-Ray DVD. It's as powerful an on-screen experience as any I've seen/heard in my cosy living room in years.