Posted tagged ‘Stephen Langridge’

Harrison Birtwistle, ‘The Minotaur’

April 16, 2008

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!

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