Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Minotaur

Say what you like about the parasitical/elitist/upper class* crowd, they get service. I hardly had to queue at all to pick up my ticket from the Royal Opera House box office for tonight's performance of Harrison Birtwistle's latest show, The Minotaur. A pleasant change from some venues I could mention. The man behind the desk almost smiled, too.

They're obviously not used to folks from the regions in the bar though, as I had to repeat my request for a bottle of Pride several times, my minimally Brummie accent proving virtually indecipherable to the barman. Of course I was in the cheap sets, but i got to feel like a flash rich person with wads of cash to chuck around through the ROH's thoughtfully charging £4 for a bottle (that's about eight quid a pint - nightclub prices if ever I saw them. Maybe this is their way of reaching out to the ordinary punter).

I must make a confession: I'm not really that mad on opera. It's fundamentally a fairly ridiculous medium that seems to attract deranged fanatics who take no interest in any other form of music. So it's a credit to the composer and the production that I was thoroughly engaged in the evening, managing to sit through the 85 minute first half without fidgeting very much a all (just as well, as there's not much room in the cheap seats, certainly stretching's a no-no).

Death's always a problem on stage. It's difficult to feel genuine horror at the sight of some skinny lass writhing around the floor smearing ketchup over her smock. I suppose this is just one of those things you have to put up with, though, and Birtwistle's score and the production are both sensible enough to present something heavily stylised that makes almost no attempt to acknowledge the concept of realism. So when the Minotaur goes on his second killing spree, taking the body tally from one to a dozen in a few minutes, it's presented more as ballet than anything actorly, and is all the better for it.

As I've noted before, Birtwistle seems to be in the process of a strange image-metamorphosis from bogey man to the cuddly face of modernism in the press at the moment, and while it would be stretching it to suggest this is no more work than a night at Madam Butterfly, this is a compelling, clearly orchestrated and emotionally direct score, and hell, yes, lyrical. The narrative proceeds in a linear fashion, and one suspects Birtwistle's in danger of becoming respectable. I particularly liked the cimbalom that popped up fairly regularly, reminding me strangely of Portishead (I guess because they're in my mined this week).

There are lots of startling moments, particularly the Keres who come to feast on the dead left in the beast's wake, and the Oracle who tells Ariadne how to help Theseus escape the labyrinth. The message of the piece - the closeness of humanity and baser nature, and the way we create our demons - isn't one of startling revelation, but it's resonant, and presented subtly without being bashed around the head, and the melancholy of the Minotaur's monologues particularly is very affecting.

All the cast were excellent, but of course special mention must be made of John Tomlinson, whose head was visible as a human ghost inside the bull's head (a particularly good example of the way the design in the show uses simple ideas effectively) and brought the pathos to the role to make us sympathise with the beast. The chorus goading him on to kill come over as school bullies, creating the beast by treating him as one.

Looking round the audience at the interval, it struck me that it didn't look at all like what cliche would suggest an audience at a contemporary opera would look like, which must be a good sign. Although there was present that man who gos to all concerts it seems, and makes sure he leaps in like a demented seal as soon as the orchestra finishes to clap, thus entirely destroying the atmosphere (this was particularly annoying at the interval). No-one thinks you're clever for knowing when it's ended, mate, so give it a rest, eh?

At the curtain call I was startled to see a fat bloke in drag with a pair of comedy plastic breasts strapped on come on stage, it was the oracle. Sometimes it's best to keep the lights down low and keep the magic.

*Delete according to personal prejudice.

I tried to take a picture of the nice sandpit with a bull's head in it at the front of the stage before the show began, but it came out terrible, so I've nicked this picture from

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