Travels in the underworld

Two new productions - The Minotaur and L’Orfeo - offer fresh takes on mythical tales.

The Minotaur/L’Orfeo
Royal Opera House/Silent Opera

Journeys to the Underworld take many forms. But whether it’s Orpheus’ quest to Hades to rescue his beloved Euridice, or the Athenians sent into the Minotaur’s labyrinth, each is a voyage beyond hope and humanity – a trial of psychological as much as spiritual mettle. This week’s opera saw the return of two of the repertoire’s most vivid mythological retellings. Birtwistle’s The Minotaur may post-date Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo by over 400 years, but the core of each is the same: a complicated portrait of a man’s struggle to retain his goodness as he descends into the darkness of violence and temptation.

Premiered at the Royal Opera in 2008, Birtwistle’s opera may only now be receiving its first revival, but is already part of the essential fabric of English opera. Resist it though he may, Birtwistle’s stage-music is drunk on the tradition of Britten and Tippett – more brutal, more inscrutable perhaps, but a natural extension of their dramatic language. Lyrical urges suppressed in his chamber music break out in his stage works, harking back to the start of his career at the National Theatre.

The Minotaur’s is a classic tale, and designer Alison Chitty and director Stephen Langridge do well to keep things simple, allowing the myth’s own angular symbolism (edgily drawn in David Harsent’s libretto) to dominate. Black spaces are carved out of air to form the maze’s oppressive passageways; the mast of a ship taunts the Innocents perpetually with the thwarted hope of escape; masked figures are judge, jury and an eager audience for the execution of the luckless Athenians, as they stare down onto the bull-ring. Video blends with and blurs live action, giving all-too convincing life to the Minotaur’s human Other, and reminding us of the sea that toils and writhes like the hide of some ghastly creature, churning inexorably in Birtwistle’s extended brass and percussion.

These orchestral toccatas that punctuate the action are no interludes, they are the dramatic pulse of a work that lives in its accompaniment. Vocal lines guide us like Ariadne’s string through the harmonic maze of the opera, but let your ear rest on them and turn your attention to the musical landscape around, because that is where the beauty is. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth offers plenty of time to enjoy the richness of Birtwistle’s score, calibrating his expanded forces carefully without overpowering the cast.

Reprising her hardened, pragmatist of an Ariadne is the ever-excellent Christine Rice and Elisabeth Meister’s flesh-eating Ker is no less poised in her ferocity. Alan Oke and Andrew Watts are luxury casting in two cameos, but the evening is all about John Tomlinson – celebrating 35 years at Covent Garden with this production, and still bringing such raw pathos to the man-beast Asterios.

Some seven miles and a world of context separate the Royal Opera House and Trinity Buoy Wharf, home to Silent Opera’s latest production. This young ensemble may tick all the fashionable boxes of democratising the genre, and taking it out of the opera house and into the community, but they do so with rather more intelligence than most.

Their signature trick, to combine live performance (efficiently directed by Christopher Bucknall) with pre-recorded elements delivered on individual sets of headphones is a clever one, and allows them to take full advantage of the flexibility of an unconventional space without the usual acoustic issues. Pre-recording the full orchestra also addresses part of the budgetary problem that sees so many fringe shows stripped-back in an attempt to make a virtue of necessity. Listening to the stylish strings and virtuosic brass of the English Cornett and Sackbutt Ensemble and there’s no doubt that this is full-fat Monteverdi, and all the better for it.

Only a few audio glitches and interference mar an elegant concept that uses technology to bring us closer in rather than awe us into ever greater distance from the drama. Singers despair or delight directly into our ears, and with a cast of this calibre it’s rather effective to expose the voices to such close scrutiny, showing up the smudges, nicks and scratches that Monteverdi leaves truthfully exposed in the writing of such heightened emotions. William Berger’s Orfeo is lived-in and loved-in – a mature passion rather than a giddy romance, and urgently delivered – and matched at every turn by Anna Dennis’s Proserpina. Emilie Renard and Caroline MacPhie lead a strong supporting cast.

Katherine Heath’s designs are elegant, with the best touches exposed gradually through our trip to the Underworld. But promenading can easily feel wearisome – post-Punchdrunk it really has to be special – and there were some moments of conceptual laziness from director Daisy Evans.

There is so much to like here and much more, I suspect, to come from a company who clearly love opera, get opera, and have all the tools to persuade others to do so too.

John Tomlinson as The Minotaur (Credit: ROH/Bill Cooper)
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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times