The Minotaur, Royal Opera House

The Minotaur’s beastlike moans which turn into lyrical passages are so touchingly portrayed and masterfully sung

The Minotaur, Royal Opera House

I was excited to see the revival of Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur at the Royal Opera House with John Tomlinson in the title role. Birtwistle had him in mind when he wrote the opera, and his heavily percussive and dramatic scoring, together with David Harsent’s poetic libretto, swept me along its stormy course.

The tale of the cursed Minotaur, half-beast half-man who rapes and gorges on innocents, a sacrificial cluster of young beauties, has such moments of pathos when portrayed by Tomlinson, whose mastery of the Bull’s characterisations were so clever and then so repulsive. What a huge job this must have been for director Stephen Langridge.

The Minotaur’s beastlike moans which turn into lyrical passages are so touchingly portrayed and masterfully sung. He is dreadful yet you pity him, and as always in a Greek tragedy, his relationship with his troubled sister Ariadne (sung by Christine Rice) is a complex one, exploring the theory that we all have the beast inside us.

Percussionists spilled out of the pit and into the boxes, as well as being on stage as part of the jeering masked crowd watching the slaughter of the innocents, drawing from true Greek theatre.

The music, strange and fiercely modern, still manages to be lyrical and wondrous, particularly when the spectacular Christine Rice sings. She is an embodiment of poise, lyrical singing, elegance and power and was always the master of her role, never letting such a difficult and expansive vocal line get the better of her.

This production is an operatic blood bath: the innocents, sung by Jette Parker Young Artists, are fed to the Minotaur, then feasted upon by ravenous black-winged Keres screaming for blood, tearing out entrails and gorging on still-beating hearts.

These scenes were certainly shocking and physical and a testament to the fabulous Young Artists: ten years ago you never would have seen a group of opera singers tearing around the stage with such physicality and abandonment. (With such graphic scenes in a newly-written opera, I think the logical next step is a zombie opera…)

The hero Theseus, who slays the Minotaur, is heroically sung by Johan Reuter, and Ryan Wigglesworth who took over from an ailing Pappano in the pit does a splendid job. This opera grabs you by the balls and doesn’t let go, and so it was even more touching that after the first performance John Tomlinson was given a standing ovation (and a cake) for 35 years of singing at the ROH. What a bull. What a man.

The Minotaur is on at the Royal Opera House until 28 January

Read more by Melinda Hughes

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