Monstrous Sir John Celebrates 35 Years in Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Harrison Birtwistle, The Minotaur: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera, Ryan Wigglesworth (conductor), Covent Garden, London 17.1.2013 (JPr)


Minotaur: Sir John Tomlinson
Ariadne: Christine Rice
Theseus: Johan Reuter
Ker: Elizabeth Meister
Snake Princess: Andrew Watts
Hiereus: Alan Oke


Director: Stephen Langridge
Libretto: David Harsent
Designs: Alison Chitty
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Choreography: Philippe Giraudeau

Sir John Tomlinson as the Minotaur (c) Bill Cooper

Maybe I was the wrong person to review this first revival of Birtwistle’s The Minotaur because I am unfamiliar with almost all of his music. Then again perhaps that is an advantage because – as a complete innocent – I can respond like an ordinary audience member. A number of those may have been present because the first two comments I overheard at the interval was ‘That was ghastly!’ and ‘I think we are all stunned’ – there was very little applause as the curtain fell then or at the end of the evening.

Reproduced in the printed programme, Picasso’s 1933 engraving Minotaur mourant possibly inspired Birtwistle, his librettist David Harsent and director Stephen Langridge in their adaptation of the classic tale that is something of a prequel to Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. What we get is neither Beauty and the Beastthe Opera nor any typical ‘swords and sandals’ heroic quest. The Cretan ‘hero’, Theseus, isn’t real central to Harsent’s version of the mythology that concentrates on how Ariadne and the Minotaur are both trapped in their separate ways and strive to escape their predicaments.

It’s a complicated story but basically Ariadne connives to become Theseus’s bride and leave Crete (‘the prison of her legacy’), whilst the Minotaur (‘the half-and-half’ – man and bull) rails against his bestiality and longs to become fully human as Ariadne’s brother Asterios. Initially Ariadne deceives Theseus and prevents him entering the labyrinth and he fails to save the Innocents who are yearly sent by the conquered Athens to Crete as a blood sacrifice to placate the Minotaur. Later, after visiting the Oracle at Psychro, Ariadne gives Theseus a ball of string to help him retrace his steps through the maze as he descends to slay the Minotaur. As he dies it is revealed he is son of the god Poseidon and is, in fact, Theseus’s half-brother. At that point the opera ends but most know that Theseus will set sail for Athens with Ariadne but will abandon her on Naxos … and thereby hangs another operatic tale.

This mythology is all very familiar for many but Harsent and Birtwistle also give us a towering Snake Princess as a gobbledegook spouting Oracle and some blood-crazed Keres who feast on the bodies of the dying. The latter make Wagner’s Valkyries look like members of a Women’s Institute and they really do look as though they belong in another work. Stephen Langridge’s production is uncluttered and Alison Chitty’s set design is spare but sufficiently claustrophobic for the bullring-like setting – complete with Greek Chorus – that is the Minotaur’s labyrinth, and her costumes are recognisably classical throughout.

What about the music … well … my generalisation, perhaps from musicological ignorance, is that modern compositions of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century seem to begin with the percussion and then concern themselves with other orchestral instruments only as an afterthought. Perhaps Philip Glass can be absolved from this but it is certainly true with Birtwistle’s music here. The myriad instruments to beat, hit, slap or shake extended up from each end of the orchestra pit to the Stalls Circle and certainly unbalanced the sound in their favour, especially in the shorter second act when they seem to come into their own. I suspect this is what Birtwistle wants us to hear and it seems to bring to mind the famous 1907 cartoon about Mahler where the caption is ‘My God, I’ve forgotten the motor-horn! Now I shall have to write another symphony.’ I appreciated more how Ariadne’s utterances were defined musically by the subtly used undulations of the alto saxophone and the various interludes bringing us closest to the colours of Ancient Greece than any of the other music.

I must admit that it all had a certain compelling power, although in Birtwistle’s angular vocal lines with their frequent octave rises or falls for Ariadne and Theseus and with the Minotaur’s virtually monotone declarations, it all failed to move me sufficiently to engage in their plight. Their characters are never brought to true life and this is particularly disappointing for the ‘half-man, half-bull’ we are supposedly to feel most sympathy for. When he dreams and becomes able to give voice to his thoughts he has a dialogue with his own reflection and here, as at the end of the opera, we are meant to appreciate the ‘moral’ of this Greek tragedy that in all of us watching there is a ‘beast’ – and possibly there is something of ourselves in every other creature we encounter.

Although the wonderful John Tomlinson, bare-chested and hidden by a mask all evening, bellows or performs his self-pitying monologues as only he can, even he never truly engages our sympathy. He seemed to have a strange ritualistic way of despatching his victims by raising one of their arms as though it was the lever of a slot machine – I wasn’t sure what that was all about. Nevertheless should the opera be revived again in another five years, I would expect Sir John to be back – even though he would be in his seventies!

Christine Rice and Johan Reuter also return to the roles of Ariadne and Theseus. The quite exceptional Reuter rides the often very loud orchestral waves much better than Ms Rice who seems to have a more bel canto mezzo sound than her demanding role would seem to require. I wonder what a more dramatic singer, with more volume and genuinely fearless top notes, would sound like as Birtwistle’s Ariadne. Peculiarly it was Elisabeth Meister’s caterwauling and wing-slapping Ker that was the most impressive of the principal singers. In its own way Andrew Watts’ Snake Princess was a fascinating assumption but I was not overwhelmed by his fellow countertenors amongst the Innocents, but maybe that is because I never really warm to that type of voice. The chorus were suitably potent in their utterances and the orchestra played well for their Royal Opera debutant conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth. With a score such as it is, it is difficult to imagine it sounding much different whoever had the baton.

The Minotaur culminates in a death scene inspired by that of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, another familiar John Tomlinson part. This performance marked the 35th anniversary of Tomlinson’s first appearance at Covent Garden. With the composer, librettist and cast remaining on stage after the curtain call, Royal Opera House chief executive Lord (Tony) Hall and Sir Antonio Pappano came out from the wings to pay tribute to him and present him with a celebratory cake. Pappano told him to his face ‘you truly are a monster’, just commenting, of course, how in everything he portrays he brings out ‘a mixture of human and animal’. Mentioning the Boris Godunov connection, he spoke of Sir John’s other famous ‘deaths’ on the Covent Garden stage. He also praised him for ‘the clearest diction in the business’. The great man responded by saying that because of that compliment he should be able to do without a microphone – and he did! Jokingly, he apologised for having appeared for only 33 out of the 35 years but in front of his wife, family and friends, said the Covent Garden stage was ‘a second home’ and ended by hoping ‘long may it continue’.

I know Sir John Tomlinson has no intention of retiring yet – but this had all the makings of a farewell and was a more poignant moment than anything in the opera that preceded it.

Jim Pritchard

For information about future performances at the Royal Opera House visit