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Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, July 2009

This is a brilliantly gripping piece of theater: what else would we expect from the composer/librettist team that gave us the stunning Gawain and the composer who spent so much of his creative life perfecting the incredibly complex but deeply stirring Mask of Orpheus? To be sure, the work of Harrison Birtwistle, who has written for the lyric stage for over 40 years, is challenging. But since the Mask of Orpheus, one sees a consolidation: a greater focus on the storytelling itself. Gone, at least for now, are the multiple layerings of story lines and variant characters that make the Orpheus story difficult to comprehend fully. Gone even are the more moderate temporal ambiguities of Gawain and the puzzling character potpourri of The Second Mrs Kong. The presentation of the myth of Ariadne, Theseus, and Asterion, the half-man, half beast in the labyrinth, is told in classic linearity. The impact of the slaughter, rape, and treachery, stylized though the depiction of the first two may be, is visceral and unmitigated by any intellectual distancing.

David Harsent’s libretto, although in language rather archaic and ritualized, is a modern psychological telling of the myth, with the motives of the protagonists much less pure than the classic stories would have countenanced. Ariadne and Theseus distrust each other, lie to each other, and eventually betray each other to achieve their escape from present circumstances. Ironically, of the three major players, only the monster is innocent. When the Minotaur first appears to us as the beast, he is taunted for his brutality and inarticulateness by a sadistic perversion of a Greek chorus. Only after the rape and murder of the first of the Athenian youths do we see the man inside, tortured by his uncontrollable bestiality and violence and wounded by the hatred and fear that surround him. Able to speak—and thereby show his humanity—only when dreaming, he is revealed as a complex and sympathetic character, used by those around him and powerless to save himself. “The beast is vile; the man must go unloved.” The man within the beast dreams of loss, foresees his end, and hopes for forgiveness. It is a brilliant conception, brought to life with great poignancy by veteran bass John Tomlinson, and aided by brilliant costume design that lights the face inside the mask when the man-half is revealed.

Birtwistle’s highly expressive atonal style uses core melodic elements from which he derives, through repetition and variation, all other material. Flashes of recognition provide a sense of unity throughout the work. This, too, has been moderated over time. Expected are the massive layered outbursts of sound that complement the more violent episodes in the story. Less anticipated, though they should have been, are the extended periods of great translucency and emotional subtlety, the superb support of the voices and the use of unusual instruments to heighten emotion—the cimbalom—or to comment upon a character—the alto saxophone for Ariadne’s duplicity. The result is a mesmerizing score. The vocal lines, admitted by some of the principals to be difficult to learn, apparently sit well on the voices, once learned. Certainly, the part of the Minotaur, written specifically for the strengths and limitations of Tomlinson’s current vocal estate, shows the stentorian but expressive bass at his considerable best. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, with her soulfully expressive face and opulent voice, is a wonderfully perfidious Ariadne, the main character if measured by time onstage. Theseus is animated by Danish bass-baritone Johan Reuter with a forceful stage presence and a solid voice throughout his sizeable range. Countertenor Andrew Watts is a delightfully fey Snake Priestess and tenor Philip Langridge proves again that there are no small parts for great performers. Among the secondary roles, all of them well sung and acted, special mention needs to be made of soprano Amanda Echalaz’s chilling Ker, the leader of a hideous band of soul-eating harpies. She’s a young spinto, acclaimed in roles like Tosca and Cio-Cio-San, whom I look forward to hearing in more congenial circumstances.

Stephen Langridge’s production, designed by Alison Chitty, is beautiful, and stark in its simplicity. An open stage—with a baleful sun, a wan moon looming in the sky, and illuminated blue lines and a trough of sand representing the sea and beach—provides the exterior area. The labyrinth is represented by a bloodstained interior arena, encircled by the elevated masked chorus, entrapping victims and monster alike. Pappano and his superb orchestra provide luminous support for the singers, performing the work, to quote the composer, “as if it were Verdi.” The video production is just what I prefer for live opera: a judicious balance of long and medium shots to give a clear idea of the interactions and settings, and moderate close-ups during solo sections to satisfy the needs of the smaller screen. The sound is superb and the DVD extras minimal but informative. Unless you know you are allergic to any opera post-Puccini, I recommend this DVD release most emphatically.



Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, March 2009

Wow! That was all I could say at the end of my first viewing of this opera! It is intense! And the DVD case says: “Warning: Contains Scenes of Violence and of a Sexual Nature”.

Birtwistle’s latest opera (premiere Royal Opera, April 15, 2008, when this was recorded) continues the exotic and erotic strains that run through his operas. It was back to Medieval times with his Gawain (1990), back to the ancient Greeks with Mask of Orpheus (1978).

Now its back to the ancient Greeks again. The story is simple enough; the music is not. The man-beast Minotaur, imprisoned in the labyrinth, is miserable. Unable to speak except in his dreams, the Minotaur longs to discover his true identity, to speak, to be like a real human. As part of Athens’s debt sacrifice, Theseus arrives in Crete to kill the monster. Ariadne, half sister to the Minotaur and his-its keeper, falls for Theseus and helps to kill his prey. Two acts, 13 scenes, three instrumental toccatas.

The music: every miscellaneous sound ever created. Or so it seems. It’s big. It’s loud. It howls. It screams. It assaults the ear. It’s anti-musical, but it works! Birtwistle has created a remarkably violent score for this remarkably violent story.

The production is overwhelming in its colorful brutality—not for the faint of heart. In describing the birth of the Minotaur, Ariadne humps the cow mask used by her mother to attract the sexual assault of Poseidon’s white bull. The Minotaur rapes and gores the Athenian sacrificial youths, male and female. The Keres, a loathsome lot of winged harpies, feast on the flesh of the dead and dying—including the Minotaur at the final curtain. The bull-fight arena setting of the labyrinth is spattered with blood and gore.

The performance is just as overwhelming. Tomlinson somehow makes the Minotaur into a sympathetic creature. His singing is quite quavery, but it fits the creature. Rice (Ariadne) actually has the largest role: she sings and sings, then sings some more, both as a narrator or story-teller and participant in the drama. Countertenor Watts’s towering Snake Goddess capitalizes on the grotesque. Langridge, sounding shaky, brings some semblance of sanity to the story as a priest—until you realize what he is a priest of.

I don’t think you are going to see this opera at your local opera house soon—if ever. It’s an extreme adventure.

Extra features: illustrated plot synopsis, a gallery of cast photos and a 32-minute documentary, “Myth Is Universal”, with commentary by the composer, librettist, stage director, and the singer of Ariadne.



Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, March 2009

Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur is a gripping opera. David Harsent’s brilliant libretto adds to the already powerful myth a bargain Ariadne makes with the hesitant Theseus, that he take her back to Athens as his wife if she supplies him with a means to find his way out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. The major characters are the Minotaur, hauntingly sung by John Tomlinson, his half-sister, Ariadne, and his killer, Theseus, strongly sung by Christine Rice and Johan Reuter. Subsidiary characters are the Snake Priestess and Hiereus, ably sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts and Philip Langridge (both involved in the oracle that gives Ariadne the ball of yarn to save Theseus). Choral groups include the innocent young Athenians sent as victims and the Keres, unforgettable scavengers who feast on the dead. The Minotaur, as half-bull, bellows but cannot speak; as half-man, he speaks in his dreams and laments his state. Birtwistle’s essentially slow-moving music, punctuated by dramatic injections of beautifully-handled high sounds, at first seems like background, but develops power by its stylistic integrity. In particular, although hardly beautiful melody, his vocal lines are eminently singable, with extreme registers saved for important dramatic moments. The production, at the Royal Opera in 2008, is superb. Anthony Pappano conducts the orchestra impressively. Excellent sound (three formats) and video. A bonus film discusses the work in great detail.



Matthew Gurewitsch
Opera News, March 2009

Inventing new myths exceeds the power of an individual artist; adding new layers to old ones may be the most to be hoped for. Harrison Birtwistle’s new opera The Minotaur, which received its premiere at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2008, harps on the possibility that the monster in the maze—half man, half bull—and Theseus, who slays him, are both sons of Poseidon. The third star in the fateful constellation is Ariadne, half-sister (through their mother) to the Minotaur and keeper of the labyrinth that is his prison. Jagged with shrieks and bird calls, the dark, densely layered instrumental writing seems to flow from archaic wellsprings, exploding and seething by turns. The fiercely communicative vocal music is no less various.

David Harsent’s libretto strikes the mythic chord by means of simplicity, both in language and in action. In Act I, Ariadne awaits the latest shipload of sacrificial youths and maidens chosen by lot, tribute from Athens. They arrive, crazed with terror. Theseus has joined them of his own free will, to vanquish the monster or die in the attempt. Ariadne intervenes, and the designated victims descend into the lair, where they are ravaged. In Act II, Ariadne gives Theseus access to the maze, a weapon and a means of escape (the famous ball of thread). He, in exchange, promises that if he lives, he will embark with her for Athens. He descends, the monster succumbs, and the curtain falls. (As we know from many sources, Ariadne will set sail for Athens but never arrive.)

A more authoritative performance than that of the original cast, under the baton of Antonio Pappano, will be a long time coming. Mezzo-soprano Christine Rice gives blazing expression to Ariadne’s pent-up rage and shame without missing her notes of fatalism and guile. Bass-baritone Johan Reuter lends the monolithic heroics of Theseus their needed weight of dread. But John Tomlinson’s Minotaur is simply on another plane. In his "public" scenes of slaughter, he brays in nonsense syllables from within a huge bull’s head, like Fafner gone berserk. In a pair of private dream sequences, he sings in English, unraveling his destiny as best he can, his tormented lyricism and longing interrupted by the cold, terse interjections of a speaking voice (also Tomlinson’s). And here, the spotlight shines through the mask to reveal the human face. That Ariadne and Theseus appear in these dreams as well (as emanations? as fellow victims of an unfathomable will?) only deepens the oceanic pathos of the scenes.

The production by Stephen Langridge, designed by Allison Chitty, evokes universals in simple forms—a strip of sand, the head of a bronze heifer, a wooden disc, a few ladders, and bleachers around the Minotaur’s arena, peopled by onlookers baying for blood. Bands of bright color serve to define the horizon, the time of day and shifting moods; orchestral interludes are accompanied by projections of a churning sea. The attack of tattered, winged harpies to feast on the hearts of the victims is the stuff of nightmares. In Act II, Ariadne’s consultation with the Snake Priestess (countertenor Andrew Watts) and Hiereus, interpreter of her prophetic jabber (tenor Philip Langridge, father of the director), heightens the suspense while adding to the score’s barbarous splendors.

Jonathan Haswell is credited as film director. In the dream sequences, which involve one-way mirrors, it can be hard to figure out just what is happening on the stage. Other than that, the DVD offers a lucid document of what in the opera house must have been a harrowing experience.



Pamela Margles
The WholeNote, February 2009

Harrison Birtwistle’s most recent opera created a sensation when it was premiered at London’s Royal Opera House last spring. This DVD, recorded during the run, shows why—and why Birtwistle is generally considered the leading composer of his generation in England.

In this telling of the ancient Greek myth, the Minotaur—half human, half beast—develops a soul. By the end, he comes to realize that he must die unloved because his actions are so vile. As John Tomlinson sang the Minotaur’s dying aria, I actually felt sympathy for this lonely guy just looking for love—Tomlinson’s acting is as riveting as his singing.

Ariadne is not merely devious here. She is complicit in her half-brother’s murderous rampages. She does help Theseus into the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, but only after the beast has dispatched the twelve young Innocents sent from Athens as annual tribute. And not without bargaining with Theseus—the robust Johan Reuter—to take her away with him. Christine Rice’s nuanced performance justifies the composer keeping Ariadne on stage for the whole opera.

Birtwistle’s pacing is expert. His angular but lyrical vocal lines have a natural flow, and he sets David Harsent’s poetic libretto so that the voices can project over the colourful, often violent orchestrations. The staging is powerful, although during the graphic on-stage rape and slaughter of the youths I did wish I was seeing this opera from a seat in the Royal Opera House instead of up close on this DVD.
It is heartening—and rare—to be able to watch a composer and librettist come on stage to accept cheering curtain calls. When Theseus claims that only the shedding of blood can stop bloodshed, little does he understand how futile that is. This landmark production reminds us how opera can so effectively provide searing commentary on our times.



Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, January 2009

Harrison Birtwistle’s most recent opera created a sensation when it was premiered at London’s Royal Opera House last spring. This DVD, recorded during the run, shows why—and why Birtwistle is generally considered the leading composer of his generation in England.

In this telling of the ancient Greek myth, the Minotaur—half human, half beast—develops a soul. By the end, he comes to realize that he must die unloved because his actions are so vile. As John Tomlinson sang the Minotaur’s dying aria, I actually felt sympathy for this lonely guy just looking for love—Tomlinson’s acting is as riveting as his singing.

Ariadne is not merely devious here. She is complicit in her half-brother’s murderous rampages. She does help Theseus into the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur, but only after the beast has dispatched the twelve young Innocents sent from Athens as annual tribute. And not without bargaining with Theseus—the robust Johan Reuter—to take her away with him. Christine Rice’s nuanced performance justifies the composer keeping Ariadne on stage for the whole opera.

Birtwistle’s pacing is expert. His angular but lyrical vocal lines have a natural flow, and he sets David Harsent’s poetic libretto so that the voices can project over the colourful, often violent orchestrations. The staging is powerful, although during the graphic on-stage rape and slaughter of the youths I did wish I was seeing this opera from a seat in the Royal Opera House instead of up close on this DVD.
It is heartening—and rare—to be able to watch a composer and librettist come on stage to accept cheering curtain calls. When Theseus claims that only the shedding of blood can stop bloodshed, little does he understand how futile that is. This landmark production reminds us how opera can so effectively provide searing commentary on our times.




Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, January 2009





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