Apparently I’m in the mood for modern and experimental stuff at the moment, because my most recent cultural outing was to see the current production of Harrison Birtwistle’s Minotaur at Covent Garden. The opera was a commission for the Royal Opera House and was first performed in 2008; I think this is its second set of performances, which isn’t unreasonable for a new composition. There’s one really big obvious classical reception point to make up front – the world of classical myth is still full of power and influence for all sorts of cultural enterprises, opera included. It’s not just those eighteenth century chaps who find it inspirational.
Birtwistle’s opera contains three main protagonists – Ariadne, Theseus and the eponymous Minotaur, pleasingly given his proper name Asterios. There is also a snake priestess and her priest interpreter; a chorus of Innocents, tribute from Athens; a Crowd; and a flock of Keres, spirits of the dead who feast on those murdered by violence. Ariadne is on the Cretan shore when the latest tribute ship from Athens arrives; she tricks Theseus into staying with her as she sends the Innocents into the labyrinth. When they reach the centre, the Minotaur slays them, and then dreams as the Keres tuck into the bodies of his victims. In his dream, he has human speech, and sings of his desire for freedom. Ariadne tries to bargain with Theseus, but he will not agree to take her to Athens with him as his wife. She then goes to the Snake Priestess, who (through her priest) reveals that Theseus can use a ball of twine to get in and out of the maze safely. Ariadne then offers Theseus a deal – her secret of how he can get into the Labyrinth and back for a promise to take her with him. (Of course, “Theseus and Ariadne will set sail for Athens!” doesn’t quite mean what she thinks it means…) In the final scene of the opera, Theseus descends to the Labyrinth and slays the beast, who gains the power of human speech in as he dies to sing his last notes, before a final Ker appears on stage to feast on him.
Of course, the obvious question is to ask what difference it makes for an opera to be written in the eighteenth century and for one to be written in the twenty-first century. The answer, as so often, appears to be Freud. Ariadne, Theseus and Asterios operate as Freud’s tripartite soul, the id, ego and super-ego; Ariadne-as-ego battles Asterios-as-id, while Theseus-as-super-ego is the only one with the power to overcome the beastly urgings of the soul. There’s lots of reflective language and action used to indicate that these figures are all aspects of the same person. For instance, Ariadne walks safely around Asterios after he’s killed the Innocents, and lies down next to him to sleep; Asterios sees both Ariadne and Theseus as his reflection in his dreams; and both Theseus and Asterios are sons of Poseidon. (One might also point to the hierarchy of man -> woman -> beast in the characters here.) The opera thus becomes a psychological drama, the tale of the self’s battle with its animal instincts and its attempt to get them under control.
This psychologised effect means some interesting alterations to the dominant myth-form. For instance, the rest of the Cretan royal family, King Minos and Queen Pasiphae, never appear on stage, although Ariadne has a lengthy solo explaining the origin and birth of the Minotaur, and the head of Daedalus’ bronze bull (in which the Minotaur was conceived) sits at the front of the stage throughout the production. Their absence, in particular that of Minos, means Ariadne takes on a much more authoritative role than she is usually given in the myth – she alone meets the tribute, she is responsible for deciding who will enter the Labyrinth first, she is able to keep Theseus out, she leads the tribute-children through the process of bathing and marking themselves with face make-up, and she sits enthroned above the arena in which the Minotaur kills his gifts. She is strangely distanced from the suffering of the Innocents, only moved at the possibility of getting off Crete – yet also utterly complicit in the annual ritual she claims to despise.
The move to the psychological plain also allows for the introduction of the Keres, who I can safely say were amazing – modern-day Valkyries, covered with blood and sporting blooming great skeletal wings, tearing out the hearts of the dead Innocents and munching down on them with good old-fashioned fake blood spurting everywhere. (I have never seen a cast bang its wings on the floor in appreciation during the curtain call before. Just saying.) The head Ker also gets what I think is the best tune of the whole opera. Their inclusion seems strange and dreamlike; none of the other cast members really acknowledge them (even the writhing of the Innocents could be read as their death pangs rather than a reaction to the presence of the Keres), but they haunt the stage and are actually pretty damn frightening. The addition of the death-demons brings in a whole separate element of Greek culture into the otherwise very minimalist ethos of the opera, almost suggesting a more primal level of psychological activity below the interactions of the id, ego and super-ego.
The opera selectively incorporates other elements from the classical world, and indeed from classical opera. Beside the Wagnerian nod to the Valkyries, the most obvious homage is to Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos (a very odd opera in and of itself, built as a play-within-a-play, which I have seen twice and would happily see again); that opera picks up Ariadne’s story after Theseus has dumped her on Naxos, when Dionysus finds her and makes her his bride. The Snake Priestess is the opera’s way of bringing in that old favourite, the Minoan Snake Goddess – her costume is very much based on the famous figurine I’ve used to illustrate this post, although her skin is covered in golden scales to replace snake accessories. The addition of the Hiereus, her priest-interpreter, is also a great nod to classical history – the oracle at Delphi, although female, only spoke when in an inspired state; her cryptic utterances had to be interpreted by her (male) priests to the people who had asked the original question. This overlapped with an interesting linguistic choice in the libretto; there were various phrases in ancient Greek sung by the audience and by Theseus as he went into the Labyrinth, mainly revolving around death and transition, which were another nod to the world from which the opera draws.
Finally, it’s worth saying a word about the Minotaur himself, sung magisterially by John Tomlinson. I’m particularly interested in the costuming choices made by the production. Asterios appears in trousers with an exaggerated leather phallus; he seems to be topless, although he is actually wearing a mesh shirt with hair on it to give the impression of a pelt; and he dons a bull’s head mask made of metal mesh which rests on his shoulders, with proper horns and ears and everything. However, there is also a little light inside the muzzle of the mask that serves both to give the mask some dimension in dim lighting, and to illuminate the face of the singer inside it. The effect is strangely appropriate – it emphasises both the beast and the man in the creature on stage. I think that’s the thing that the opera really puts at its heart in terms of classical reception – how to view the monstrous as both utterly other and yet strangely similar. The placement of the monster at the centre of the Labyrinth, rather than roaming through it, also shifts how we think about the monstrous; regardless of which path we take, we will eventually find ourselves face to face with the beast at the maze’s centre. The minotaur of this opera is not easily alienated – even in his death, he haunts us with his closeness to us. Indeed, the final visitation by the Ker suggests that at his death, perhaps there is not so much difference between him and the Innocents after all.