Harrison Birtwistle's stunning opera returns to the ROH for the first time since its 2008 premiere. Such is the calibre of the cast that this is also the first time all them have been simultaneously available since that premiere.
Ironically, Antonio Pappano, the driving force behind the revival and part of this talented collective, has had to drop out of the run due to conductor's elbow (a result of over-exertion in the recent 'Ring Cycle'). Stand-in Ryan Wigglesworth does impressively well, coaxing and controlling the towering columns of sound, built from the top to the bottom of the orchestra: from the brooding toccatas that accompany a video of a black boiling sea, through the ironic jazz that decorates the Minotaur's half-sister Ariadne's retelling of how her mortal mother was mounted by the bull from the sea, to the screaming dissonance that frames the brutal sequences depicting the beast at work. The latter take place in an arena-style killing ground, where the creature gores terrified Innocents delivered to the man-bull as an appeasing sacrifice. It is a frightening spectacle, made all the more so by the arrival of the bloodcurdling Keres (splendidly led by Elisabeth Meister), the flesh-eating bird-women who scratch their bony wings on the stage before plucking out the hearts of the warm carrion with a screech.
Everything is brought back to its original slickness and clarity by director Stephen Langridge. Simple designs by Alison Chitty effectively convey the stark mythic world. The star is, of course, Sir John Tomlinson, reprising the troubled creature – unleashing a baleful animal roar when awake and feeding, using clear diction (no need for surtitles here) when dreaming of his nemesis, Theseus. He is run a close second, though, by Christine Rice as an imperious, impassive Ariadne, frustrated, lustful daughter of King Minos.
While little emotion is wrought from the characters, particularly baritone Johan Reuter as Theseus (they seem more mythic ciphers than conflicted people), the opera is a profound exploration of man's relationship to his bestial self, thrillingly enacted in this modern masterwork.
The Minotaur runs until Jan 28 2013