Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Philip Langridge on Harrison Birtwistle

In memory of Philip Langridge, here's a description of The Minotaur, Sir Harrison Birtwistle's opera at The Royal Opera House, of which a DVD is available.

“This clew is your clue” intones the Snake Priestess of the Oracle. A clew is a string, the means by which Theseus can find his way through the Labyrinth. It’s a surprisingly direct pun in an opera where meaning is occluded, as in a maze. The clue to The Minotaur is, perhaps, to follow the thread as it develops. The labyrinth is a “place with more dead ends, more flaws and fault-lines than the human heart”.

"If anything", Philip Langridge told me in 2008,"Birtwistle’s music has become more impressive with time. John Tomlinson, for whom he wrote Gawain, asked about the two different tempi in the Minotaur’s death scene. Birtwistle explained that they represented the body and the brain, which doesn’t stop until death is finally reached. Birtwistle isn’t, Langridge says "very ‘subconscious’ but he writes straight, without a method or plan", he adds. "When Harry says he’ll write a piece for you, you think you’ll have to take a deep breath and sing loudly. But that’s not the case". Four years ago, Birtwistle wrote Today, Too, for Langridge, accompanied only by flute and guitar. "It was so quiet, so gorgeous…....he’s always written well for the voice."

Philip Langridge created the role of Orpheus, in The Mask of Orpheus and later King Kong in The Second Mrs Kong so the relationship goes back many years. How does the Minotaur fit in with Birtwistle’s earlier work ? "I’ve noticed a huge difference. I was talking to John Tomlinson about this, who has also known Harry for a long time, and we felt that this was perhaps the first time we’d heard real melancholy, except perhaps in the Io Passion" (written for smaller forces, and also directed by Stephen Langridge). “It is very beautiful. The great thing is that he is able to write the Minotaur for a great stentorian bass and yet it’s terribly melancholic. The feeling is in the orchestration and in the vocal line, too. The Minotaur has an ‘inner voice’ which speaks for him in the opera, and it’s terribly sad."

"When the Minotaur appears in the fifth section of the opera, John Tomlinson, who plays the role, has to roar unintelligibly while he’s goaded by the crowd, who call him “man-freak” and other cruelties. Only when he is asleep can he express himself. As the libretto puts it, "In dreams I seem to speak like any man….I howl the words, I cry the words" Indeed, Birtwistle says that the Minotaur is the only “true” innocent in the drama. Theseus and Ariadne both have mixed motives, but the Minotaur had no choice, born into a situation over which he had no control. "There are people like that in this world", Langridge added quietly.

The Minotaur is a work of depth and maturity. During the Toccatas, an image of an ocean swell is projected onto a screen on the stage. Like the waves, the music pulsates, surging with power that comes from deep forces within. Similarly, Theseus has to go "below" to achieve his mission. Ancient myths have psychological resonance, which is perhaps why they fascinate.

The Minotaur is half man, half beast, who kills and must be killed in return. Yet who really are the monsters in the myth and in this opera? The Minotaur's mother conceived him in sin, for which he, blameless, is punished. His sister Ariadne lets him be killed so she can escape the island. Theseus, the "hero", misleads Ariadne so he can use her help. Later he kills the Minotaur by stabbing him, treacherously, in the back. Bloody as the Minotaur is, he's not as scary as the faceless mob, sitting in judgement, who urge him on to kill, then rejoice when he is killed himself.

No-one knows how to break the pattern until Ariadne goes to consult the Oracle at Omplalos, the centre of the world. The Oracle is implicit throughout the opera. The Minotaur himself is aware of it, for it was the Oracle that decreed his incarceration in the maze when he was a child. Although the action takes place in the Labyrinth, the Oracle is the pivot on which everything turns. The Oracle scene is barely ten minutes long, but it's the most important of all.

It's spectacular. The Snake Priestess (Andrew Watts, countertenor) bursts forth, towering 5 metres above the ground, intoning a bizarre, undulating wail. The Snake Priestess is a conduit to the Gods. The scene is illuminated in harsh, unrelenting glare, even more distressing as the rest of the opera unfolds in shadow.

Only Heirus (Philip Langridge), half man, half priest, can interpret what the Snake Priestess intends. He's the channel, the gatekeeper. He knows Ariadne's first question wasn't straight, but then the Snake Priestess stops mid flow and allows Ariadne another question. Perhaps it's because Ariadne's faced the truth: she's scared. Langridge looks perplexed because this is utterly unprecedented, but he hands her the clew, the red thread that will lead Theseus to safety.

"We worried that lines like 'The question is : what is the question ?' might seem strange or comic, but suddenly realized how direct they really were", said Langridge. But the Oracle gets to straight to the point, "like the Mafia". Hierus is only the spokesman, he can only channel and repeat the rules about "only one question". Ariadne faces up to her fear and answers correctly and there’s a pause. "What happens?" asks Langridge, "obviously something was not understood by the translator and suddenly the Snake Priestess tells Ariadne she will set sail with Theseus to go to Athens, even though she’s not supposed to get the extra answer. " So what’s the significance? Perhaps it’s because Ariadne admits to fear. Langridge adds, "I work with young artists and most of their problems arise from fear of failure. However nervous they are, the one thing they won’t admit is fear".

The Minotaur sings without words, as do the innocents and the crowd. Singing without words seems a feature of this opera but one can gauge, from the enthusiasm of those involved, that there’s lot more to this opera than conventional narrative singing. The indications are that voice is used as an instrument might be used, to create evocative sound which can be interpreted on several levels. The orchestra plays a huge role in Birtwistle’s music, so in a sense, voices too are used orchestrally. Singing without words can become extremely moving used in this way, especially when a composer is expressing things too complex for language.

"Singing without words", said Langridge, "taught me things about myself, I think. You can’t ‘act’, you have to really ‘be’ that person, gradually becoming the person." He adds "The Mask of Orpheus was a baptism of fire. It started off with a sunrise, it was the birth of Orpheus. The music started very quietly, half an hour before, when people were still coming in. They saw this summer aura on the stage, and gradually the volume of the music increased and slowly the lights went down. People were saying, ‘Have we started ?’ I was all the time in complete darkness, under a huge tarpaulin which covered the stage, and they had ropes at the side of the tarpaulin which pulled it up very, very slowly. It was a fifteen minute sequence from when the ropes started to lift and I appeared, singing ‘I am Orpheus’. "

After the Oracle scene in the Minotaur, it's a foregone conclusion that Theseus's mission will succeed and that Theseus and Ariadne will depart. What the Oracle isn't saying is that Theseus will dump Ariadne as soon as he gets away, but that is another story.

There are so many levels in The Minotaur which reveal themselves obliquely, like corners in a maze. The Minotaur is child-like, John Tomlinson's round belly and short legs looking meek beneath that magnificent bull mask.In the film, too much light shines through the mesh it's made of, showing too much of Tomlinson's face, which is a pity. The mask is more mysteriously, the big, bleak bovine eyes pleading. Tomlinson's singing is magnificent. He roars balefully as the beast, but as the man he's painfully vulnerable. His last song dissolves into pitiful diminuendo as he reverts to infancy. "Between most and least, between man and beast. Next to nothing". The film isn't shot too well, lots of flat planes and angles, old style "point and shoot". But this DVD is the only record we have of its first performance.

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