Birtwistle's Minotaur

Harrison Birtwistle


Opus Arte DVD OA 1000D


In his latest opera, The Minotaur, British composer Harrison Birtwistle collaborates once again with David Harsent (librettist for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). He also returns to themes found frequently in his music: tales from Greek mythology, labyrinthine structures (both theatrical and musical), theatre-as-ritual, and violence. The latter, even for a composer with a reputation for selecting confrontational scenarios, is on an unprecedented scale.


Of course, this befits the ancient tale of the Minotaur, a half-man half-beast who murders and cannibalizes Athenian sacrificial victims until vanquished by Theseus (with a little help from Minoan priestess Ariadne). Abetted by director Stephen Langridge’s visceral production, Birtwistle and Harsent play up the brutality of the monster – as well as the carrion-hunting Furies who appear in the wake of his rampages. While some may shudder at the graphic nature of the action (including a particularly disturbing rape-murder and several simulated eviscerations), The Minotaur also attempts to construct a three dimensional portrait of its antagonist as a deeply conflicted and isolated individual. Taunted and shunned by humankind, he is an inarticulate monster when awake, but somehow is able to speak when dreaming. John Tomlinson’s poignant, emotionally wracked Minotaur evokes sympathy, despite his seemingly unquenchable brutality.


Other members of the cast are compelling as well. Christine Rice sings the challenging and long role of Ariadne beautifully, but deftly underlines the character’s moral ambiguity and capacity for subterfuge. Johan Reuter supplies a well-honed portrayal as well. Sung with intensity and fearsome brio, his Theseus has few romantic sentiments; he clearly prefers using Ariadne to wooing her. Birtwistle’s score, with its characteristic vocal angularity and imaginative orchestration, captures the subtleties and subterfuge of the characters’ interactions and meditations. It’s also more than up to the task of vividly accompanying the most raucous of the opera’s action sequences. Like Harsent’s depiction of Theseus, The Minotaur  is not interested in wooing or cajoling the audience, but it certainly creates a memorable reassessment of a timeless story.


-Christian Carey

One thought on “Birtwistle's Minotaur

  1. Dr. Carey,

    I believe that one should add that designer Alison Chitty contributed greatly to Stephen Langridge’s visceral production.

    Thank you, nevertheless, for your review here.



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