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)
MOVIESTORE COLLECTION/REX
Show Hide image

How Paul Giamatti changed the fate of Pinot Noir

The actor's prickly character in Sideways - a film about wine buffs - made us appreciate this tricky grape.

When Paul Giamatti, playing Miles in the 2004 film Sideways, started waxing lyrical about Pinot Noir, he changed his own fate and, surprisingly, that of the grape. It is hard to know which was more unlikely: the sexual interest of the beautiful, wine-loving Maya (Virginia Madsen) in this thin-skinned, temperamental loser, or the world’s heightened interest in this thin-skinned, temperamental grape.

“Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression,” Miles growled and, kapow: those patient winemakers suddenly found a bunch of film buffs queuing for their wine. Perhaps it was the character’s description of its flavours as “just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle . . . on the planet”. Perhaps it was the power of celebrity approval.

In fact, the correlation between finicky Miles and finicky Pinot is even closer than the script claims. Miles in California wine country doesn’t behave exactly like Miles back home in San Diego, and that is true of Pinot Noir, too. Everybody marvels at the tiny difference between one Burgundy vineyard and the next: how Pommard’s red wines have such power while those of Volnay next door have more elegance; how a wine such as Armand Rousseau’s Premier Cru Clos St Jacques – so good as to be almost indescribable – can differ in quality from surrounding Gevrey-Chambertins, which aren’t exactly shoddy either.

Perhaps the Sideways audience understood that no two of us are alike. Miles was talking about vulnerability, and the need to feel unique and uniquely cared for. No wonder Maya melted.

Given its variability and responsiveness, the best way to explore Pinot is to try several. So, I lined up bottles and drinkers from three continents and took a world tour without leaving the dinner table.

It seemed unfair to include a great Burgundy name, so I began with David Moreau’s Maranges 2014 from the southernmost part of the Côte d’Or. It had clean, redcurranty flavours but felt too young – trying to taste the terroir was like asking a lost toddler for their address. Still, when we moved on to a purplish Pinot from Bulgaria, a country still suffering the loss of the vast and uncritical Soviet market, the Maranges improved by comparison. We fled to America, where Oregon Pinots, particularly from the Willamette Valley, are much praised and steeply priced. Lemelson Vineyards’ “Thea’s Selection” 2013 was rich but lacked depth; I preferred the wild berries and marzipan of Elizabeth’s Reserve 2012 from Adelsheim Vineyard.

The difference between the two, just six miles apart, was their most interesting aspect, so we assembled another pair of neighbours: Ocean Eight 2012 and Paringa Estate 2013, both from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, separated by a year and four zigzagging miles.

These are beautiful wines, the former full of blackberry, the latter spectacular, perfectly structured and with a scent to dab behind your ears. And here is the paradox of Pinot, which tastes of where it’s grown but is grown everywhere that stubborn individuals can persuade it to fruit.

The Mornington Peninsula is planted with Pinot because its patient winemakers claim their climate is similar to Burgundy’s – which would be hilarious if it weren’t, like Miles’s grandstanding, rather plaintive. This is a spit of land with water on three sides, ten thousand miles from France, as much like the landlocked Côte d’Or as I am like Virginia Madsen, which is to say that there are basic structural similarities but you’ll never mistake one for the other.

Ambition and imagination are qualities we don’t share with the vine – but plant those attributes in the right soil and the results can be delicious.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit