Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur (DVD)

0 of 5 stars

The Minotaur – Opera in two parts to a libretto by David Harsent

The Minotaur – John Tomlinson
Ariadne – Christine Rice
Theseus – Johan Reuter
Ker – Amanda Echalaz
Hiereus – Philip Langridge
Snake Priestess – Andrew Watts
First Innocent – Rebecca Bottone
Second Innocent – Pumeza Matschikiza
Third Innocent – Wendy Dawn Thompson
Fourth Innocent – Christopher Ainslie
Fifth Innocent – Tim Mead

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Antonio Pappano

Stephen Langridge – Director
Alison Chitty – Designs
Paul Pyant – Lighting design
Philippe Giraudeau – Choreography
Leo Warner & Mark Grimmer – Video designs
David Groves – Audio Producer

Recorded 25 & 30 April and 3 May 2008 at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: December 2008
OA 1000 D (2 DVDs)
Duration: 2 hours 55 minutes [including extras]



Harrison Birtwistle’s “The Minotaur” received its world premiere performances in April and May 2008 by The Royal Opera. Although the BBC transmitted the opera in glorious High Definition, these DVDs are disappointingly presented in the inferior (even to standard British PAL) NTSC format.

My colleague Richard Whitehouse, in his review of the first night, commented on the trapped nature of the characters and, in this respect, the transfer to the ‘small screen’ works incredibly well. The two live performances I caught were musical highlights of 2008 – Birtwistle has produced a captivating psychological insight into the principal characters of Ariadne, Theseus and Minotaur without forgoing the horror of the Innocents’ predicament and the frightening capabilities of the Keres when feasting on Minotaur’s victims.

Within its two, somewhat artificial, parts (the original plan was for no interval) the opera is divided into thirteen sections. Occasionally, separating them, are video displays, which work very well on DVD, filling the screen rather than being projections above the stage. Stephen Langridge’s fluent staging and Alison Chitty’s sparse sets are captured well, as are the Minotaur’s intimate cries, moments that are difficult to achieve in an opera house.

Antonio Pappano produces in Birtwistle’s often-harrowing and violent music a sense of lyricism that creates momentum in the drama. The role of Ariadne (the longest part) finds Christine Rice in sterling form, commanding of the dire situation and yet able to find degrees of pathos when bargaining with the Oracle for safe passage for the one she loves, Theseus. Dominating the opera, and the screen, is John Tomlinson’s Minotaur. The part is ideally suited to him; his growls are masterly and in his dire monologues, or dreams, he navigates Birtwistle’s perilous score with consummate ease. Whether it is the sense of entrapment – Ariadne is condemned to send Innocents to the imprisoned Minotaur unless she can escape with Thesues – or the vulnerability of all the characters, these very human traits make for compelling viewing.

Commendable ‘extras’ include a 30-minute feature called “Myth is Universal”, interviews with the production team about how the story of the Minotaur is expressed in the opera. There is also a seven-minute synopsis that is spoken to pertinent stills from the opera. When watching the opera itself, turn out the lights, turn up the volume, and revel in the horror and humanity on show.

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