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)
BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.