The revival of the Minotaur by Harrison Birtwistle at Covent Garden proves that there truly has been a serious and very welcome commitment to contemporary opera at the London venue. It is likely that Covent Garden has been planning the return of this piece since its first appearance five years ago, but it is still a good time for the initiative to take place.
Of course, at the same time it is bad timing for the English National Opera who is now looking at cost cutting measures given the fact that they are attempting to get out from under a two million pound debt.
Birtwistle has not seen his operas travel much up until now, but with Gawain being performed at the Salzburg Festival and The Minotaur playing at the Garden it seems that he is finally getting his due. Of the two, the Minotaur is clearly the stronger opera as it is more refined and less gestural.
Throughout the opera Birtwistle’s preoccupation with structural rigor is very clear and the story is easily told with some great pulsating interludes during which some saxes pop up when Adriane tells of the affair of her mother and a bull which of course is what leads to the birth of her half-brother Minotaur.
The lyrics are nicely toned with a sense of dramatic violence at times which helps to convey the sense of urgency and drama that is running underneath of the entire opera. This is John Tomlinson’s 35th year with the Royal Opera and he brilliantly takes on the title role with a great performance of a man that is half beast. He manages to capture this personality perfectly as he certainly behaves like a bull at times, but also has a human side to him as well.