Lost and Found: unravelling meaning in Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur

John Tomlinson as the Minotaur

John Tomlinson as the Minotaur

A new opera creates a certain stir. And there’s a selfconscious ‘we’re here to be brutalised’ atmosphere among the audience: we think we’re tough enough for this, to watch Birtwistle and the beast go head to head in a battle of pain which will cleanse us, civilise us, bring us culture. The production’s central staging – the Minotaur’s killing-ground as an ancient bullfight, complete with greedily jeering spectators – holds the mirror up to nature perhaps a little too uncomfortably. But, by then, we were all spellbound.

The oppressive, brooding mood sucks you in and shoulders you out by turns, dragging you inside the piece like a tidal current. The music is full of the sea; splashes, crashes, slaps, groans, sighs and screams swell and fade by turns as the great bones of the piece move firmly and inexorably beneath the surface. The tone, from the first, is one of dread. Birtwistle conjures a mounting terror about the sea: not only as an insurmountable boundary (Ariadne, in an exceptional image, imagines the waves as an endless slamming of doors upon the shore she cannot leave), not just as a deadpan and dead-ended horizon (expressed by a single neon band around the stage, which glows without shining); he pushes us into the endless, flesh-crushing depth of a place where water weighs more than iron or rock, where light cannot penetrate, and, above all, where there is a system in play which we cannot control, however much we may understand it. Watching the slow-motion video image (designed by Mark Grimmer and Leo Warner) of a sensually swollen sea which frames each scene, I was struck by how the texture of the water, closely and slowly observed, appeared more like mosaic, like tessellated scales, rather than a fluid: the sea, it seems, is a labyrinth we can all get lost in. Homer often talks of the ‘pathlessness’ of the sea; the video, to me, uses this concept to extend the labyrinth, and it works brilliantly (the lost futures of Ariadne and Theseus, when she will be abandoned and he bereaved, being starkly implied by the skilful libretto).

Of course, this is not a perfectly classical retelling of the myth; the Minotaur has been remodelled for our modern age, and the ancient story of male and female, sexual egotism and family secrets is transformed for us into a parable of pride, control, posturing, and bargaining. The changes made to the story seem subtle: a shift in emphasis here, some minor additions (such as the introduction of the Keres, Harpies, into the labyrinth) there; but the effect on the tale as a whole is dramatic. The tense gender dynamics of the myth evaporate as so much steam; lust simply becomes another commodity with which to control other people’s expectations. There is no love between Theseus and Ariadne; in order to force him into doing what she wants, she spreads herself bestially as her mother did over the same infernal frame, tempting him, coercing him to do her will. And his submission, animal only, we know will not last beyond Naxos. This is not love, not real lust, not desire, not even curiosity: it is commerce. The language of debt and transactions vies with that of keys and clues as Ariadne and Theseus battle with each other to find lost meaning in life.

Despite these sweeping changes, there is more here classically than perhaps at first meets the eye. Ariadne’s first appearance, as she treads her way along a short strip of sand, reminded me overwhelmingly – both in her body language and in her song – of Catullus’ famous poem 64 (here in Latin, here in English): his disturbing, enigmatic vision of the deserted, desperate Ariadne. The use of Greek at key moments of tension in David Harsent’s libretto was very pleasing; and best of all was Birtwistle’s imaginative setting, and use, of the formal tragic lament-sounds (eoe, oioi etc.), which I hope we’ll hear again elsewhere. The depiction of the prophetess was, if you’ll forgive the pun, inspired. On the other hand, the addition of the Keres, for me, did less for the myth than it did for the opera: but they were certainly a magnificent addition in terms of staging, infusing a furious, visceral murderousness in their music and dance.

Harrison Birtwistle uses his Minotaur to present us with an interesting meditation on what we hate, and what hate does to the hated. The Minotaur is castigated by the rest of Crete for being deformed, freakish, ugly and, most of all, inarticulate; yet the gross words of the world are put to shame by the Minotaur’s delicious facility of language in dreams, the only truly luxurious moments of language in the otherwise spartan libretto, where his wracked soul pours out a litany of misery, bewilderment, anger and torturing guilt strongly reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster: the reticent, heartfelt wrongs of the wronged, troubled by half-remembered memories, scarred by frustrated impulses. As the dynamics of hate developed on the stage, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Victorian freakshow horror with which we still view people who are not physically perfect (as any flick through the TV schedules will show you); how we prize beauty and eloquence in our culture, often (always?) at the expense of sincerity and reality. These points are not new, but Birtwistle delivers them with subtly startling vigour. Theseus, the pin-up have-a-go hero, sickens us with his catalogue of successful murders: unsure of his parentage, he kills his way through uncertainty and forges an identity in brave butchery. The Minotaur, meanwhile, kills only when goaded; only when faced with it, maims the beauty which reminds him so forcibly of his hideousness: “I see myself reflected in their eyes… Of course, I pluck them out.” His aggressive reaction is a foregone conclusion, even to himself; but it is notable that on stage all he does, with most of his victims, is, for a moment, to take their hand. They wander off to be wounded in the wings, and stumble back to bleed at his feet, for him to do nothing more menacing than lie down and dream. Even the rape scene is static and unwilling: there’s more Ferdinand here, perhaps, than at first meets the eye. It is the Harpies (the Keres), always the grisliest depiction of uncontrolled women in classical myth, who come to suck blood, rip out hearts, and shrill bird-like cries which are the hell’s echo of the gull-like sounds made by the terrified victims as they first land on Crete. And the possible, unspoken relationship between the Minotaur and his killer – both descendants of Poseidon – lends a tremendous poignancy to the final scene, which is sung with mesmeric dexterity by John Tomlinson.

Modern science would have us not so very far from real Minotaurs today. It’s tempting to problematise them as a Promethean offering to progress. Birtwistle turns the story round, bringing us inside the labyrinth, inside the Minotaur, in order to see that how we treat people in our society today – in so many ways – is wrong. And that, if those victims do wrong, the fault must surely lie with us: progenitors of the Minotaur by selfish short-term desire, creators of so many labyrinths of excuses to hide our shame and cover up the consequences, as we remain constant consumers craving the ongoing spectacle of blood.

Like any good labyrinth, there are a thousand more twists and turns to this production than those I’ve sketched out above; and if you want to see a truly masterful piece of theatre, let alone a groundbreaking new opera, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur is a must.

19th April 2008

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden