Birtwistle: The Minotaur / Tomlinson, Reuter, Pappano

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BIRTWISTLE The Minotaur • Antonio Pappano, cond; John Tomlinson ( Minotaur ); Christine Rice ( Ariadne ); Johan Reuter ( Theseus ); Andrew Watts (...

BIRTWISTLE The Minotaur Antonio Pappano, cond; John Tomlinson ( Minotaur ); Christine Rice ( Ariadne ); Johan Reuter ( Theseus ); Andrew Watts ( Snake Priestess ); Philip Langridge ( Hiereus ); Amanda Echalaz ( Ker ); Royal Op House Covent Garden O & Ch BBC/OPUS ARTE 1000 (2 DVDs: 140:17) Live: London 4/25,30 & 5/3/2008

& Documentary: Myth is Universal ; illustrated synopsis; cast gallery

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.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames

The Minotaur – John Tomlinson
Theseus – Johan Reuter
Ariadne – Christine Rice
Snake Priestess – Andrew Watts
Hiereus – Philip Langridge
Ker – Amanda Echalaz

Stephen Langridge, stage director
Recorded live at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 25, 30 April and 3 May 2008.

- Documentary: Myth is Universal
- Illustrated synopsis and cast gallery

Picture format: NTSC 16:9 Anamorphic
Sound format: LPCM Stereo / DTS 5.0
Region code: 0 (All Regions)
Menu languages: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian
Running time: 175 mins
No. of DVDs: 2

Product Description:

  • Release Date: November 18, 2008

  • UPC: 809478010005

  • Catalog Number: OA 1000D

  • Label: Opus Arte

  • Number of Discs: 2

  • Composer: Harrison Birtwistle

  • Conductor: Antonio Pappano

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra

  • Performer: Amanda Echalaz, Andrew Watts, Christine Rice, Johan Reuter, John Tomlinson, Philip Langridge


  1. The Minotaur

    Composer: Harrison Birtwistle

    Ensemble: Royal Opera House Covent Garden Orchestra

    Performer: Amanda Echalaz (Soprano), Philip Langridge (Tenor), Johan Reuter (Baritone), Christine Rice (Soprano), John Tomlinson (Bass), Andrew Watts (Bass)

    Conductor: Antonio Pappano