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)
Digital Vision
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The Magna Carta was good for humans - but even better for fish

“All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast.” 

It may look like a minor clause in one of the greatest historical documents of all time, but the insertion into Magna Carta of this single clause – “All fish-weirs shall be removed from the Thames, the Medway, and throughout the whole of England, except on the sea coast” – had as benevolent an effect as any of its better-known demands.

Up until then, the king’s weirs, while they maximised his own catch, had prevented far too many fish from returning to their spawning grounds upriver, and so had a disastrous impact, especially on salmon populations. Within a few years of Magna Carta the rivers were teeming with life. So much salmon was available that at the height of the season monks at some abbeys begged their abbots for greater variety in the kitchen. Yet increased salmon stocks benefited many abbeys and the fish became an important part of the economy. In 1109, Lenton Priory in Nottingham was granted the right to the first draught of fish from the Chilwell spring each year, a privilege that helped sustain it as one of the richest monastic houses in England.

This all changed with the Industrial Revolution. After a golden age, during which even Henry VIII sacrificed 500 marks of personal income a year in further restrictions on fish weirs, centuries of goodwill towards England’s rivers were overturned in a decade as waterways throughout the land were obstructed and polluted regardless of consequence. Fish populations plummeted and vital food sources were lost in the toxic soup that the salmon now had to navigate (for the mature fish, an exhausting climb to their high spawning grounds and, for the vulnerable smolts, the outward journey back to the sea). From having been so plentiful that a hungry monk could groan at the sight of freshly grilled cutlets, the Atlantic salmon has now joined the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.

Now, wild salmon face a new challenge – from other salmon. Or rather, they face a threat that we post-industrial human beings have introduced: the fish farm. Having seen what the Industrial Revolution did to our river life, people have responded by trying to replace fish supplies using industrial methods, creating cramped conditions, leading to heavy infestations of lice, highly distasteful disease-management regimes and, some would argue, considerable cruelty.

It makes no sense: just as it made no sense to pollute our land for the profit of a few back in the 19th century. What does make sense is to work on cleaning up and unblocking our rivers to allow salmon to re-establish themselves, as they have done every time societies allowed them room to grow.

All across the country, local river trusts and national organisations such as Salmon & Trout Conservation UK are working to re-create the healthy salmon stocks these islands once enjoyed, as consumer groups work to shame supermarkets into disclosing the sources of their farmed salmon and pressurise retail outlets to use only those farms that follow best practice. Anyone shopping for fish at such establishments can join in: all it takes is a mobile phone and a list of acceptable sources (S&TC UK offers useful advice on how to get started).

On the other hand, farmed fish will always be farmed fish – all too often a grey, fatty piece of doctored flesh that I wouldn’t want on my table.

So, why not boycott altogether? There are plenty more fish in the sea. But we Brits love our cod, our haddock and, of course, our salmon, no matter how grey; so we want them all the time, no matter the season. In earlier times, with a wider range of seasonal treats to look forward to, things were much better, not only for us, but also for the health of our rivers. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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