Harrison Birtwistle, ‘The Minotaur’

Harrison Birtwistle

Last night was the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s opera The Minotaur, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

Breaking my rule about not commenting on performances I am involved in… I have to say it was amazing:  hugely powerful, great production, simple and dramatic (designed by Alison Chitty, directed by Stephen Langridge, lit by Paul Pyant), charismatic performances – Christine Rice warm, communicative and unbelievably accurate musically as Ariadne, John Tomlinson giving the performance of his life as the eponymous ‘Man-beast’, Johan Reuter giving his all as Theseus despite not being totally at home with the English language (for once I imagine there won’t be any complaints about having surtitles in English).  And Antonio Pappano supremely in control of this vast and difficult score.

Birtwistle’s music polarizes opinion – remember the rumpus about ‘Panic’ at the Last Night of the Proms a few years ago?  I was at ENO when we put on The Mask of Orpheus, and operas don’t get much more monumentally complicated or unapproachable than that was.  But The Minotaur seems to me one of his finest scores, with many of his hallmarks – lots of noise, two growling tubas, screams and shouts, angular lines, stomping rhythms, strange sounds such as cimbalom and contrabass clarinet – but focused, singer-friendly, often very still and beautiful.

The text is by David Harsent (who also did the libretto for Birtwistle’s previous ROH opera, Gawain).  As soon as I read the libretto I got shivers up my spine, and they really haven’t gone away since!  He absolutely captures the essence of the Minotaur story – the duality of half-man, half-animal, the resonances of his conception and birth, the fact that he is locked in the labyrinth away from human eyes, the whole story of Ariadne and the thread that enables Theseus to get out of the labyrinth… Harsent doesn’t flinch from the brutality of sacrifice and murder – the Minotaur’s sacrificial victims, the Innocents, are raped and killed on stage (watched by an excited chanting crowd of spectators), and vulture-like Keres descend to disembowel the dead bodies.  Not for the squeamish!

this is on my wall!
I have felt a very personal link with this project, as it tapped in to my own ‘thread’ of associations with Daedalus, labyrinths and the Minotaur, with Crete and the Minoan civilisation, and with the writings and art of Michael Ayrton (I was pleased to discover that David Harsent shares my Ayrton-mania and owns some of his works too).  To my mind there’s a certain 1950s-ish feel about the whole work – that earnest post-war eagerness for all things modern, for new art and poetry without snobbishness or elitism, but also a hunger for the classics, particularly ancient Greek myth, reinterpreted for our times. It struck me that The Minotaur is ‘good old-fashioned Modernism’ – maybe that’s why it speaks to me so strongly.

It’s too early for the critics to report, but unless I am very wrong, this will be hailed as a historic occasion.  It will be on radio and TV, so if you can’t get to any of the remaining five performances, keep your eyes and ears open.

A great world premiere of a terrific work, a truly memorable night and one I am proud to have been associated with.

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PS — for a fascinating view of the work from an insider’s perspective, read Johan Reuter’s interview — click on his name above, or here.

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picture of Birtwistle stolen from Allied Artists website — thanks

picture of Ayrton print ‘Seated Minotaur’ from a photograph by me, but I am aware that Michael Ayrton’s copyrights are administered by Justine Hopkins, his step-grand-daughter and biographer

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2 Comments on “Harrison Birtwistle, ‘The Minotaur’”


  1. […] Jonathan Burton: Words and Music: Birtwistle’s music polarizes opinion – remember the rumpus about ‘Panic’ at the Last Night of the Proms a few years ago? I was at ENO when we put on The Mask of Orpheus, and operas don’t get much more monumentally complicated or unapproachable than that was. But The Minotaur seems to me one of his finest scores, with many of his hallmarks – lots of noise, two growling tubas, screams and shouts, angular lines, stomping rhythms, strange sounds such as cimbalom and contrabass clarinet – but focused, singer-friendly, often very still and beautiful. […]

  2. jonathanburton Says:

    copy of a comment I have just added to The Rambler’s blog which kindly quoted me:

    Apparently not a telecast but being recorded for DVD — a last-minute decision.

    More sniffy reviews in Telegraph and Financial Times. And an appalling Newsnight Review on BBC2 last night, with literary luminaries who happen to be musical ignoramuses, saying they ‘really liked the show’ but ‘hated the music’ — ‘couldn’t wait for it to end’ — ‘Why can’t the singers learn to sing words so they don’t need those awful surtitles? You can hear the words in Sondheim’… Tony Parsons even called it a ‘con trick’.
    Come ON! How would THEY like it if we were as ignorantly rude about Joyce or Bunuel or Picasso? You’d think modernism has been around long enough for people to have got over these stupid prejudices. How long ago was Schoenberg, for heaven’s sake??
    But Newsnight Review is notoriously literature-biased anyway. I’ve never seen a ‘proper’ musician on there. (Max?? Where are you???)

    End of rant.

    Hooray for you guys who are coming tonight and to the remaining performances — it really is a treat. I’ll try to get the surtitles in the right places for you!! 😉


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