MusicWeb International's Worldwide Concert and Opera Reviews

 Clicking Google advertisements helps keep MusicWeb subscription-free.



Sir Harrison Birtwistle, The Minotaur: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of The Royal Opera / Antonio Pappano, The Royal Opera House, London, 15. 4.2008 (AO)

Libretto : David Harsent
Director : Stephen Langridge
Designs : Alison Chitty

Cast :
Ariadne : Christine Rice
Innocents : Rebecca Bottone, Pumeza Matshikiza, Wendy Dawn Thompson, Christopher Ainslie, Tim Mead
Theseus : Johan Reuter
The Minotaur : John Tomlinson
Ker : Amanda Echalaz
Snake Priestess : Andrew Watts
Hiereus : Philip Langridge

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conductor : Antonio Pappano

The Royal Opera House Chorus, Chorus Master : Renato Balsadonna

Sir John Tomlinson as The Minotaur


“This clew is your clue” intones the Snake Priestess, translated by Hiereus.  The clew is the string that will guide Theseus through the labyrinth.  In an opera teeming with multiple images and meanings, it’s a surprisingly direct pun since  the clue to The Minotaur is perhaps,  also 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”. No wonder Birtwistle has spent so many years exploring the mysteries of ancient myth : the possibilities are endlessly intriguing.  The Minotaur is a work of depth and maturity,  “It’s as if he’s writing from his soul now”, says Andrew Watts, who plays the Snake Priestess.  “He has no need to prove anything, he’s writing for the sake of writing”. Indeed, the music in The Minotaur flows as if welling up from deep sources. During the toccatas, an image of an ocean swell is projected onto a screen on the platform. Like the waves, the music pulsates, surging with power that comes from deep forces within. To achieve his mission, Theseus has to go below the surface and confront what is within, as should we all.

Superficially, the plot is gruesome. The Minotaur, half man, half beast, feasts on human blood. There’s no escaping the gory circumstances of his conception and birth, which Ariadne graphically describes.  But yet again, surface appearances deceive.
The Minotaur may roar, but there’s nothing crude at all about this music. It oscillates, endlessly reshaping itself, tantalising yet ever lucid. Birtwistle may use archetypes, but they resonate musically as well as psychologically.  Paradox is central to this opera, operating at all levels and The Minotaur is half-man, half-beast. Duality could not be more explicit.

The Minotaur, the Innocents and the Chorus


The Minotaur may kill, rape and maim, but he’s the only true innocent in the whole narrative, despite there being five other characters called by that name.  Ariadne schemes to sacrifice her own younger brother in order to escape the island and Theseus is there to pay a blood debt, and plays along with Ariadne for his own purposes. But the Minotaur acts only on instinct, his consciousness revealed only when he’s dreaming.  Another voice “speaks” for him, until his final moments when death destroys the body which imprisons him. John Tomlinson creates the part with such sensitivity that the Minotaur comes over sympathetically, a kind of Everyman torn by forces beyond his control.  Much has been made of how the Minotaur resembles Hagen, because of the dream scene. Fortunately however, Tomlinson is far too astute a Wagnerian to fall for this comparison since Hagen, though also a half-breed, betrays all round him, while the Minotaur himself is betrayed by everyone, even before his birth.  If anything, the Minotaur is Siegfried without cocky selfishness. Tomlinson’s Minotaur mask is imposing, but he doesn’t mistake that for the part itself.  He reveals the man  Asterios, behind the mask.  Half naked, and with a tail, Tomlinson manages to look both strong and vulnerable at the same time. He shows just how young the creature really is, younger than Ariadne, closer perhaps to the Innocents whom he is forced to kill.  It’s extremely touching, for the Innocents were chosen for their beauty, all the more to mock the “beast”. Birtwistle’s music for the Innocents is unworldly in its loveliness, with two lustrous countertenors enriching the soprano parts. The Minotaur’s inarticulate roars seem all the more anguished in contrast bur such intensely emotional music doesn’t need explicit verbalization.

The way that Birtwistle has written the part for Tomlinson is a true gift of friendship : the timbre is such that it fits Tomlinson perfectly, his voice sounds rejuvenated. This is a role he could be singing for many years to come, and of course it enhances his strengths as an actor.  Although the cadences sway upwards and downwards, like the paradoxes in the plot, the middle register is warm and natural, the lines ending in diminuendo.  At the very end, Birtwistle clothes the Minotaur’s dying moments with remarkably subtle counter-tempi.  The Minotaur is at last liberated from the prison that is his body, and for a few moments, his soul is expressed in music of great purity.  This is a role that needs sensitive, thoughtful interpretation, and John Tomlinson has its full measure.


Hiereus (Philip Langridge) The Snake Princess (Andrew Watts)
and Ariadne (Christine Rice)


More clues to meaning are embedded throughout this opera to guide an audience who can pick up on them.  Implicit throughout is the presence of the Oracle.  The Minotaur himself refers to it, for the oracle dictated the creation of the labyrinth.  The oracle is thus the real turning point in the drama.  Omphalos is the centre of the world, the Snake Priestess a direct line to Zeus.  Again, this is a Birtwistle paradox.  The scene may be barely ten minutes long but it’s pivotal.  This is where Ariadne gets the thread which Theseus needs to escape the labyrinth, but in order to get it, she needs to face her own inner demons.  Where murky darkness obscures the set in other scenes, the Snake Priestess is bathed in chilling light.  Here there’s no room for anything but pure, unadorned honesty.

The Snake Priestess, as conduit to the Gods, is supremely powerful and it’s significant that Birtwistle wrote the part for the countertenor Andrew Watts.  The Minotaur is half-man, half-beast, while the Snake Priestess looks like a woman but sings like a man with an extremely high register. Like the Minotaur, she sings without words, her long wavering lines intoned like an incantation.  Yet again, ambiguity and paradox is at the heart of this opera : singing without words places more emphasis on listening to the sound on a deeper level.  Once more, Birtwistle’s writing for the part fits the idiosyncrasies of Watt’s voice so well that, although it’s a technically a challenge, it doesn’t impose unnatural strains, but unfolds as if it were a strange, living thing on its own.  Philip Langridge’s Hiereus is powerfully sung, too.  Although Hiereus is just a channel for translating the Snake Priestess’s chant, Langridge gives the part character. Why does the Snake Priestess stop in mid flow to ponder Ariadne’s interjections? Why does she answer a second, forbidden question? Hiereus is confused, because this is unprecedented, so it must be very important indeed.  And it is, because Ariadne has faced up to the truth: she is motivated by fear.


Johan Reuter (Theseus) and John Tomlinson (The Minotaur)


In some ways, the story does evolve around Ariadne’s strategies for escaping the island. It’s a demanding role, and Christine Rice sings in nearly every scene.  She’s effective, but one can’t help wonder whether more could not have been made of her character, which is potentially rich in the contradictions and convolutions that so inform this opera.  On the other hand, maybe that’s what Birtwistle wants, an Ariadne as foil to the truly pivotal parts like the Minotaur, the Snake Priestess and Hiereus.

The “heroes” here aren’t quite what you’d expect in conventional theatre.  Theseus, for example, is pretty much a stock action man, despite the tantalising clue about his own parentage, and the references in the libretto to his being a “shadow” that the Minotaur glimpses.  In fact, he isn’t a hero at all, because he stabs the Minotaur in the back, a creature who doesn’t even know what a weapon is.  Perhaps Theseus' true heroism is that he’s too honest to delude Ariadne by promising to marry her, only to take her off the island. I was much more impressed by Johan Reuter in this part than his earlier Wozzeck, but perhaps future productions will make more of these parts?

As with all Royal Opera House productions, the chorus and extras were very good, and deserve more credit than they usually get.  The Innocents were outstanding, their  singing of an unusually high standard in both senses of the word. In the libretto, they sing about flying to escape fate, so when the countertenor parts soar upwards, they really do evoke a different perspective. The Kers were suitably malevolent, wild vultures : that’s their nature, just as The Minotaur is destined to feed on blood, not grass. Far more disturbing was the part of the chorus, taunting the Minotaur, pushing him to kill, yet condemning him when he does.  The chorus may be faceless, but that’s exactly the point : anonymity brings out the worst, mob violence most vicious because those involved cannot, like Ariadne, face up to their motives.

David Harsent’s libretto is poetry, ideas distilled into concise images and saying more with fewer words than prose writers ever can. So it is too with composers like Birtwistle.  The Minotaur is written with elegant precision, no self indulgent extravagance, no wasted decoration.  It’s true to the spirit of Greek tragedy, even if it deviates from the original myth but  is no mere rehash of ancient text.  What Birtwistle does is take Harsent’s poetry and set it in music just as “poetic” and oblique.  It’s remarkable how intimately the text and music integrate in this opera. The moon, for example, is present even when invisible, for it is the moon that creates the tides that operate the oceans. The sea god Poseidon caused the creation of the Minotaur and is possibly also Theseus’s father. Hence the music wells upwards and downwards, like a huge swell in the ocean which surrounds the island, the upward and downward cadences repeating like waves. Yet Birtwistle's music  also contains something which might be described as the phosphorescence sparkling on the ocean in the moonlight – high, oscillating cadences that lift above the sonority of dark strings and brass, and then disappear as elusively as they become noticeable.

Similarly, Birtwistle’s non-verbal singing is very important. Because the sounds are mysterious, both singers and audience have, ironically, to put more effort into listening, to find out what their notes “mean”. For meaning they have, but it’s oblique and equivocal  like the Oracle, and so much else in this opera. Although the voice parts are probably a joy to sing, the wordlessness puts even more onto interpretation.  The voices work like a kind of über-instrumentation, thoroughly integrated with what’s happening in the orchestra, which itself  never provides mere  background support.

The orchestral parts have tricky cross rhythms and currents, which Antonio Pappano conducts as to the manner born. Yet there’s also a second orchestra, conducted Chorus Master Renato Balsadonna. This group, mainly percussion, provides a starker counterpoint, not unlike the spoken voice of the Minotaur, or the Snake Priestess/
Hiereus dialogue. It’s the duality theme again, unified into a whole. Some of the most moving music happens when the Minotaur dies, where two tempi cross, symbolising the final separation between body and mind.  Phllip Langridge says the composer writes “mathematically”, as Bach did, creating intricate patterns yet always patterns with emotional resonance.  The patterns in The Minotaur are maze-like, but like the labyrinth lead towards a purpose.  Perhaps the key to all of it  lies in how far a listener is prepared to penetrate  the surface. Had Ariadne not gone to the Snake Priestess and confronted her fears, she’d never have been given the clue:  and so it is with this opera as a whole.  The Minotaur certainly repays repeated listening, and I’m going to a second performance to hear more.  The score, published by Boosey and Hawkes might also be worth perusing. Be sure not to  miss the broadcast on BBC Radio 3 ; it's at 1830 on Saturday, 31st May.

Anne Ozorio

All pictures © Bill Cooper

Back to Top                                                    Cumulative Index Page