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)
Photo: Popperfoto
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How the Oval regained its shape: the famous cricket ground hosts its 100th Test

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the stadium in recent years keep coming.

Few stadiums have as rich a sporting history as the Oval. After opening its gates in 1845, it hosted England’s first home football international, the first FA Cup final, and Ireland’s inaugural rugby Test.

Though it took 35 years before a cricket Test match – the first ever in England – was played at the ground in Kennington, south London, it was worth waiting for. WG Grace scored 152 runs, setting the tone for many memorable performances  at the Oval. Among the highlights: Len Hutton’s 364 in 1938, still the highest Test score by an England batsman; Viv Richards’s double century and Michael Holding’s 14 wickets for the West Indies before an ecstatic crowd in 1976; England’s Ashes-clinching match in 2005, when a skunk-haired Kevin Pietersen thrashed the Australian attack.

But just five years later, in 2010, the Oval and its host club Surrey were in a bad way. For the first time since 1986, the first day of the annual Oval Test was not a sell-out, and attendances for county games were down. Finances were so stretched that Surrey made a dozen administrative staff redundant, and there was talk of insolvency. The club, which is owned by its 10,000 members and is a tenant of the Duchy of Cornwall, was “very close to a substantial crisis”, Paul Sheldon, then chief executive, said at the time.

Today that seems far away. On 27 July, the Oval hosted its 100th Test, the third match of the series between England and South Africa. The first day was sold out. And Surrey are now the richest first-class county, with £12m of reserves. In 2019, work will begin on a redevelopment scheme that will increase the Oval’s capacity from 25,000 to 40,000, making it the biggest cricket ground in England. (Lord’s, the Oval’s more illustrious rival, can seat 28,000 people.)

“We are in a good place,” said Richard Gould, the current chief executive, one recent afternoon in his grandstand office overlooking the pitch, where a big group of local schoolchildren ran around in the sun.

How did the Oval regain its shape? Gould, whose father Bobby played football for Arsenal and was manager of Wimbledon when the team won the FA Cup in 1988, lists several factors. The first is a greater focus on non-cricketing revenue, taking advantage of the club’s historic facilities. In 2011, when Gould joined Surrey after stints at Bristol City football and Somerset cricket clubs, revenue from corporate events and conferences was £1.3m. This year the projected income is £4.6m.

The second factor is the surge in popularity of the T20 competition played by the 18 first class counties in England and Wales. Unlike Tests, which last for five days, a T20 Blast match takes just three hours. The frenetic format has attracted many people to games who have never previously followed cricket. Surrey, which like Lord’s-based Middlesex have the advantage of being in London, have been especially successful in marketing its home games. Advance sell-outs are common. Surrey reckon they will account for one in six T20 tickets bought in the UK this season, with gate receipts of £4m, four times more than in 2010.

Whereas Test and even one-day international spectators tend to be regulars – and male – Gould estimates that up to 70 per cent of those who attend T20 games at the Oval are first-timers. Women, and children under 16, typically constitute a quarter of the crowd, a higher percentage than at football and rugby matches and a healthy trend for the game and the club.

The strong domestic T20 sales encouraged the Oval’s management to focus more on the county than on the national team. Until a few years ago, Surrey never seriously marketed its own merchandise, unlike professional football clubs, which have done so successfully for decades.

“When I came here, everything around the ground was focused on England,” Gould said. “We needed to put our team first. In the past, county cricket did not make you money. With T20, there’s a commercial business case.”

To raise its profile and pull in the crowds, Surrey have signed some of the biggest international stars in recent years, including Australia’s Ricky Ponting, South Africa’s Hashim Amla, Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara and Kevin Pietersen, who is now mainly a T20 franchise player. For the players, as with the counties, it’s where the money is.

The challenge for Surrey is to ensure that the new fans drawn to the Oval in recent years keep coming. In common with many businesses today, customer data is crucial. The club has 375,000 names on its marketing database, of which 160,000 are Surrey supporters. But since the average T20 purchaser buys six tickets, many people who attend games at the Oval remain unknown to the club. One way Surrey are trying to identify them is through a service that allows one person to book tickets for a group of friends, who then each pay the club directly. Another method is through offering free, fast Wi-Fi at the ground, which anyone can use as long as they register their email address.

For all the focus on T20, Gould is keen to stress that England internationals, especially Test matches, are a crucial part of the Oval’s future – even if the business model may have to be tweaked.

“We always want to be one of the main Test venues. The problem we have is: will countries still put aside enough time to come to play Tests here? In many countries domestic T20 now takes precedence over international cricket. It may be that we may have to start to pay countries to play at the Oval.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue