The Minotaur - Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 15 April 2008
It's hard to accuse Sir John Tomlinson of stealing the show when the whole thing was written specially for him. Even so, 45 minutes along, just as it started to drag a little, his first appearance jolted it back into life. Bull-masked and bare-chested, he roared and lowed the Minotaur into being, spotlit alone on the bare stage as the orchestra rose to a clamour beneath him. Talk about making an entrance.
The evening started well enough - glassy black sea rolling on a video screen, sighing strings, bass winds grunting ominously beneath. But then Ariadne and Theseus turned up. In Birtwistle's tale, the pair are grossly unsympathetic. She'll do anything to escape the prison of an island she shares with the Minotaur, including tricking the visiting Theseus into marriage. Theseus isn't interested in anything except the revenge-killing of the Minotaur. Hardly a pair of lovebirds.
Birtwistle's scoring here is almost serene; cool and translucent. The vocal thread leaps and jerks here and there, but never thrills. The spare, minimalist set - a sun, a sky, a sail - starts to look bare and dull. The joy spreads thin. Twenty minutes in, and I was counting down to the interval. Christine Rice and Johan Reuter sang splendidly and no doubt did what they were supposed to do, but like a family Christmas, the whole thing just probed the powers of human endurance a little too hard.
But with the entrance of the Minotaur, everything shifted up several gears. The music became bristling, abrasive and veryvery loud, with an army of percussionists spilling out from the pit and into the stage side boxes, and two more beating their drums on stage.
In Birtwistle's version of the tale, the Minotaur is not a dumb agent of destruction, he's a deeply sympathetic character, yearning to make sense of himself and his existence. (But managing the odd bit of beastly rape and murder in between).
Trapped in a bullring, egged on by a masked chorus, the Minotaur bellows inarticulately and gores his sacrificial victims with balletic grace. Then alone in a dream and gazing into the mirror of his future, he speaks, or rather sings, a caged handful of circling notes. Tomlinson's face, visible beneath his wire bull mask, emphasises the human shadowed beneath the beast. It's riveting and unsettling.
I still can't decide whether the near-repeat of the sacrifice and mirror-dream scenes increases or diminishes their impact - it's structurally elegant, but does it add anything?
I had more doubts about the Keres, mono-winged goth vultures who descend to feast on the Minotaur's sacrificial leftovers. Amanda Echalaz was brilliantly terrifying as their screeching leader, but shouldn't the Minotaur himself and his killings be the scariest thing on the stage?
Here are the t!ts, and yes they're more like the front of a ship than the front of a page 3 lady, but hay, countertenors can't grow their own. Ariadne had to get the ball of string tip somehow, and Andrew Watts, the Snake Priestess, provided it, gliding skywards, skirts trailing, stuttering in an arresting shriek. It was the closest the evening got to humour, a relief from the intensity of the soul-searching and bloodshed, but far too brilliantly executed to be a mere distraction.
Even the return of Theseus and Ariadne for some more dry interplay couldn't deflate the thrilling dénouement, where mortally wounded by Theseus, the Minotaur finally speaks, becoming human in death, a heartbreaking transformation from Sir John Tomlinson.
Clearly conscious of the responsibility in mounting this major premiere, Pappano had polished the orchestra to Berlin Phil-like perfection. Yes even the horns. I can't recall ever hearing the Royal Opera House orchestra play quite this immaculately - it certainly raises the bar for future productions.
One thing we probably won't see again though is £65 top price tickets - and anyone who imagines ticket prices don't affect the audience mix should have checked out the significant proportion of younger faces in the full house tonight.