Royal Opera House, 21 January 2013
The first 15 minutes of the opera, from the 2008 production (on youtube)
A revival of Harison Birtwistle's 2008 work confirms it deserves attention for its unflinching depiction of the effect of violence on the spirit.
The programme notes confirm what is clearly shown on stage; that librettist David Harsent is uncomfortable about notions of the heroic.
I don’t mean this as a criticism; or perhaps I mean to suggest that this drama does not attempt to present a credible heroism. The kind of things heroes did – for example Theseus, the hero here – are no longer the kind of things most of us can value in any thought-provoking work.
However, the Minotaur, while sympathetic, is still monstrous, and this is something we can find credible, though often are not asked to. Instead, we are either given an unsympathetic villain or if we feel sympathy for him, he turns out to be much less villainous than we originally thought.
Not so here. The Minotaur commits acts of grotesque violence, and no acts of kindness. His freakish appearance (and half-beast nature, as he and everyone else feels it) combined with his deprivation in the dark prison Labyrinth, combine to produce a plausibly vile disposition. Wretchedness breeds villainy, and it is not relevant that of course not all wretched people are villains, any more than all villains lead a wretched life.
The Minotaur is not an anti-hero, for contrast with the hero Theseus. He is a villain, a monster, very well characterised. Here, Theseus is more the anti-hero, brave and well-intentioned but also pragmatic, unscrupulous and happy to murder his half-brother, for both he and the monster were fathered by the Sea God.
[This last trait, while to us no worse than being happy to murder someone unrelated, was regarded by the ancient Greeks as a vile crime. More might have been made of this in the drama, but in any case Theseus is deliberately unmemorable.]
Ariadne is more central to this drama than either the anti-hero or the titular monster. If she was present in the final scenes, this could even be described as her tragedy. Fearful and wanting to escape her homeland, she clutches at the straw promise Theseus makes to leave with her to Athens, though his subsequent desertion of her on Naxos is foreshadowed in the very opening of this work, as she walks lonely along the Cretan beach.
Birtwistle has tended towards both myth and violence in his operas, and here I think he finds the perfect subject. He depicts a violent, cruel world with appropriate music, including, surprisingly, very warm music on occasion when either the Minotaur or Ariadne are feeliong sorry for themselves, as well they might.
I think this uncharacteristic occasional venture into sentimentality is absolutely vital for this work. It humanises the effects of the violence and despite ourselves we feel pity for all those affected.
The flavour of ancient Athenian tragedy is captured by Birtwistle and Harsent. We don't leave the theatre feeling happier, or with greater understanding of our terrible condition, but we do experience it properly, and are repelled by it.
Cast, conducting and playing is all of the highest standard. Direction, sets and designs are unobtrusive and right. I hope this opera enters the canon.