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Scottish Opera's The Minotaur - a review

Opera for children is a delicate balance, and Scottish Opera is to be congratulated for not pandering to them, but presenting a work of actual artistic merit, their only concession to children being an attempt to make the plot easier to follow. However, there are several problems that ultimately make me consider The minotaur only a partial success.

Things start out rather promisingly - The Oracle's opening song reeked with excitement and drama, as she began to set the scene for the opera. Louise Innes' is a superb performer both physically and vocally, and practically oozes charisma - an excellent bit of casting. Things look very promising indeed.

Theseus (Paul Keohone) then enters in modern costume, whilst the Oracle dons a scarf over her Greek robe and becomes his mother. I have to say that I have severe doubts over whether cut-off trousers and a T-shirt really are appropriate... it seems very odd indeed, and was very out-of place amongst all the beautiful Greek costumes being used. Happily, he would change after getting to Athens. The opening scene devoelops well and in strict accordance to myth as far as I remember it. Theseus' solo after the opening scene where he meditates on what he will become after he goes on his journey seemed rather trite and comparatively weak musically from the rest of the score, however, and probably should have been cut. However, all was forgiven as the scene changed to Athens, and people entered excitedly telling of Theseus' deeds, with Claire Wild giving a particularly spirited and delightful depiction of the battle with Periphetes, waving about a jug of wine enthusiastically like a club to illustrate her point to great comedic effect. Theseus enters, choruses welcome him, Medea ( Sarah Rhodes) tries to turn King Aegeus (Nicholas Fowler) against Theseus, but her plot to kill him off to let her own son rule in his stead is foiled as Aegeus realises that Theseus is his own son. Things develop according to myth, although I must admit to being a little surprised that Scottish Opera dared to explain that Minos' wife has sex with the white bull Minos was to have sacrificed, causing the minotaur to be born, but, in retrospect, there isn't really any good ways around it. Theseus agrees to join the party being set off to be sacrificed to the minotaur, and his example convinces others to follow in stead. However, why was there a man standing there, acting like one of the volunteers, but with no vocal line for any of the songs that follow, which were women-only?

The business with the black sails vs. white sails to indicate whether Theseus is alive or dead on his return is inadequately explained - a point that will come back to haunt the second Act.

The long scene on the ship feels like filler. Nothing plot-important happens, it's just an excuse to provide us with lots of beautiful music and another solo for Claire Wild (if I recall correctly) about her nightmare. The only real fault I'd hold against it is that some of the lyrics seemed a bit banal.

We arrive in Minos, where everything is red - red robes over the togas and chitons, a red dress for Ariadne, red for Minos' costume, the set seeped with red... it's really quite beautiful and effective. Minos is a delightful melodramatic villian, practically cackling madly with delight over his control of the Athenians. A perfect comic villain. At the end of the opening scene, with a cry from Minos of "Let the entertainment begin" a delightful interpretative dance killing of the minotaur occurs, featuring the whole cast. it's wonderful - but they hadn't actually killed the minotaur, it was just literal entertainment. I see int he program the librettist was trained in dance... methinks he got rather over-indulgent here - you can't do something like that in a children's opera. I can't help but think that every child in the audience was confused at that point as to whether the minotaur was alive or dead.

A scene between Ariadne and Theseus follows, wshe gives him the ball of twine and sword, and the act ends with a long song where everyone confesses all the embarrassing things they did, as they're going to risk death anyway (and are rather drunk as well). The librettist uses this opportunity to fit in every bit of potty humour and gross-out joke he can think of. The children loved it, and it was fairly amusing. Still, it seemed slightly out of place in an opera that could otherwise pass quite well for non-children's opera.

On the whole, Act I was brilliant, and I eagerly awaited Act II.

As Act II opened, Theseus was alone on stage, asleep, his sword and ball of twine nearby. A long atmospheric scene showed that he was all alone, but the scene went on far too long as he prevaricates over whether to go on or not in rather boring recitative.

The scene that follows is actually rather difficult to describe. Computer-generated backgrounds have been used throughout the opera, projected onto a cheesecloth curtain in front of the main scenery pieces. This is all well and good. And the idea of using flying-by wire to handle Theseus' movement through the maze against a projected background is quite clever. However, the scene went on far too long (probably a good ten minutes of forgettable instrumental music), and why on earth would they use an image of the actor who played Minos' head - without the helmet of Minos' costume, no less - as the starting point, and pull Theseus into Minos' eye? The children around me seemed baffled "He entered into his eye," said one, in confusion. (The children were remarkably well-behaved, don't get me wrong. The only interruptions the whole night were the quiet whispering of the short bits of explanatory text (e.g. "Aegeus calls for volunteers to face the minotaur") that were displayed on side panels to a young child who obviously couldn't read the big words, and maybe three other comments were all I heard the entire night)

Theseus eventually met the minotaur, in a slow, tension-filled scene, leading into a ballet with the minotaur, complete with catching each other and spinning each other round. Frankly, I wasn't sure whether the Minotaur and Theseus were ready to fight, or were planning on having gay sex. They really should have used the battle with the false minotaur in act I for this scene - it was far more memorable, and it wasn't actually clear the other Athenians were dead until Theseus told Ariadne they were after a (rather speeded up) reverse replay of the fly by wire section,a dn Thesus wound up the string. As I recall from the myths, whether Theseus saves the other Athenians can go either way depending on the source, and, frankly, the tension could have been just as effective or more if they had let one or two of the other Athenians live. It did allow them to follow on a thread they had started of Theseus' grwowth from boyhood to man, but, frankly, all the songs relating to that thread were the weakest in the piece, and all could have been excised.

Anyway, Theseus and Ariadne run away, and go to Naxos, where they fall in love. Then the script starts to fall apart.

The oracle enters and announces Ariadne must marry Dionysos. Sorry, no grumbling, come away now. Ariadne submits far too easily, as does Teheseus in the confrontation later. It's completely out of the blue, and badly done. Theseus leaves Naxos.

Remember how I said the black sail/white sail thing wasn't set up very well? Well, by jumping straight from Naxos to Athens, neither having a ship scene on the way to help explain it, nor actually explaining it in the Athens scene, the reasons for Aegeus' suicide must have become impenetrable for those that didn't already know the story. And the text they put up, something like "Theseus forgets his promise and leaves the sails black" doesn't explain what's ging on either. It desprately needed to be explained, in simple words, preferably repeated, that Aegeus thought the failure to change the sails to white meant Theseus was dead. I don't think that was ever actually said, but was just skirted around by the lyrics. A strange failure in the opera.

The long chorus that followed ageus' death was just bizarre. It was about how Aegeus would be remembered forever, and so we'll call the sea he jumped into the Aegean sea, made worse by the oracle not really being the best character to say it.

Theseus enters in a black evening suit (more horrible costumery! Why couldn't they stick with the toga he's been wearing since half-way through act I?) All the named characters save the minotaur (and one Athenian) deliver five part polyphony accusing him of his wrongs. It was musically brilliant, but I can't help but think that children would be confused. As the opera ends, the libretto gives up any pretence of trying to narrate events in a coherent manner, has the oracle prophisy that Theseus' deeds will be remember forever, and, using a glowing line of string, lets Theseus find Ariadne again, using only the signs at the side to explain what's going on: "Theseus lived a long and happy life, but never forgot Ariadne".

The Minotaur should be a great opera, but the second act needs major revisions. If, as we may hope, this opera is revised and not left to die after this one-month tour of Scotland, it could well become a staple of Children's outreaches by opera companies. A pity to have such an otherwise superb work have such a fatal flaw in its heart.


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