Birtwistle’s Minotaur – the reviews

Harrison Birtwistle’s new opera, The Minotaur, opened at Covent Garden last night to wide acclaim. Some responses to the music from the reviews so far:

Andrew Clements, Guardian:

This narrative is unfolded with great lucidity through Birtwistle’s score. A single melodic line snakes through the whole opera, changing register and assuming a variety of guises and hues. The scoring is pungently coloured by cimbalom and saxophone, yet it’s always spare and elegant, never overwhelming the voices, and only unleashing the full orchestra forces when the violence of the drama demands it – in the Minotaur’s two ritual killings of the first part, and the final slaying of the creature himself.

Matthew D’Anconia, Spectator:

As the cast enjoyed their rapturous ovation, I noticed that Antonio Pappano’s conductor’s hands had been besmirched with stage-blood from clasping Tomlinson’s hands for the bow. It was an apt metaphor for the seepage of mythic horror, red in tooth and claw, into the auditorium itself. Do not miss this chilling masterpiece.

Michael Church, Independent:

[T]he music is quintessential Birtwistle, with surface complexity masking a monumental undertow. But Rice’s long arias, and John Reuter’s graceful answering ones as Theseus, don’t take wing.

However, as Rice begins to sing of her Minotaur half-brother’s conception, the music crackles with demonic energy: the moment when the beast stands revealed is a brilliant coup de theatre. The drama is now both wonderful and dreadful; as more victims are raped and gored, blood upon blood, the crowd intone a drugged and ecstatic chorale brutally shattered by a screeching chorus of winged furies. Here the music’s crazy momentum displays Birtwistle’s talents at magnificently full stretch.

Jonathan Burton: Words and Music:

Birtwistle’s music polarizes opinion – remember the rumpus about ‘Panic’ at the Last Night of the Proms a few years ago? I was at ENO when we put on The Mask of Orpheus, and operas don’t get much more monumentally complicated or unapproachable than that was. But The Minotaur seems to me one of his finest scores, with many of his hallmarks – lots of noise, two growling tubas, screams and shouts, angular lines, stomping rhythms, strange sounds such as cimbalom and contrabass clarinet – but focused, singer-friendly, often very still and beautiful.

Richard Morrison, Times (the least impressed of the reviewers so far):

The Minotaur rarely gripped me as some of Birtwistle’s operas have done. There are amazing orchestral effects and the voice-writing is more expressive than in Birtwistle’s earlier scream-fests.

But there’s little evidence here of him breaking genuine new ground. And despite Stephen Langridge’s efficient staging, Alison Chitty’s elegantly sparse designs and Antonio Pappano’s well-paced conducting, many scenes feel very ponderous. After three hours, like Theseus, you may be reaching for that twine to lead you out of the labyrinth.

Fiona Maddocks – Evening Standard (my favourite comment of all):

In the lead-up to this long-awaited premiere, on the Today programme and elsewhere, there have been well-intentioned attempts to pretend Birtwistle’s music is really no harder than a night out at Chicago or Billy Elliot if only you put your mind to the matter.

This is disingenuous. Complex? Yes. Difficult? Damned difficult. Birtwistle demands every ounce of your attention, urges you to use your full listening brain to detect the rich layers, poignant details or noisy mayhem of his score, his most voluptuous yet.

So, largely a big thumbs up – although a couple of people I’ve heard from weren’t quite so impressed (in particular with the staging and pacing). I’m not going until quite late in the run, so you’ll have to wait to see whether I agree.

And if you don’t have a ticket yet, all is not lost – according to Burton (who should know):

It will be on radio and TV, so if you can’t get to any of the remaining five performances, keep your eyes and ears open.

Edit: More reviews coming in:

Rupert Christiansen – Telegraph:

Birtwistle’s austere and angular vocal lines never move, touch or seduce, and the attempt to explore the dilemmas of Ariadne and the Minotaur doesn’t spark them into credible life. Birtwistle, in other words, can’t do real people or subtle feeling – he hasn’t got the Mozart or Janacek thing.

What he can engage with, matchlessly, is the epic, the ritual, the barbaric, the strange.

George Hall – The Stage:

The score’s splintered lyricism and thrusting textures are presented with detailed focus by the chorus and orchestra under Antonio Pappano, and leave an overwhelming impression.

Stephen Graham –

The music is a powerful player in the drama. It emphasises events on stage and takes its own part in the telling. The latter situation is evident, for example, in the heavily symbolic, varied vocal styles of the protagonist, whose final ability to sing like a man whilst conscious (he had previously only done this in dreams) is undercut by the limited range and aggravated contours of his line. The expected realisation and denouement of recognition is there belied by the music. Elsewhere, the music is largely typical of Birtwistle: its mobile and angular motifs (continuously hocketed and varied) that are contrasted with occasional passages of sustained and hushed choruses; its reliance in the vocal writing upon a modern idiom of recitation and Sprechgesang; its banging percussive antiphonies (especially powerful in the ritual death scenes where two on stage drummers play rolling fanfares on tom toms in support of the baying shouts of the chorus who long for Asterios to gladiatorially slaughter the innocents); and its colourful timbral insights (for instance the wailing alto saxophone that shadows Ariadne, or the skeletal unpitched wood glissandi of the Minotaur’s death scene).

Anna Picard – Independent:

Long on ugliness, short of redemptive beauty, rich with the rough, pungent poetry of David Harsent’s libretto, Birtwistle’s score is as violent as its subject. Bass drums rumble as the night sea boils and sucks; trumpets sound a futile distress signal; violins draw a faint skein of light across the sky; a flute sounds, naive and pure. Here, alone, is Ariadne (Christine Rice), watching the approach of a black-sailed Athenian ship, preparing the bowls of white paint with which the Innocents must daub their faces before descending to their deaths in a charnel house of clattering cimbalom and excoriating percussion. Toccatas puncture the drama like rusty blades; a masked chorus wails in excitement and impatience; memories of old transgressions buck and rear in blind, rhythmic patterns. Compared to this, Panic is a picnic.

Mark Berry, Boulezian:

This is, unsurprisingly, a fine score indeed, another instance of Birtwistle’s genius in evoking the ancient world in all its complexity, in all its danger, in all its strangeness. It also sounded, again unsurprisingly for those who have followed his career, very English, at least in places. I do not of course mean this in the debased sense of the ‘pastoral’, which has been taken by some reactionaries to define Englishness. This is something more viscerally melancholic – if the combination makes sense – and more willing to treat English tradition, old and new, as part of Europe rather than cling to sentimental island-based canards.

A quick word to Tony Parsons and Joe Queenan: if you can’t cope with grown-up music, perhaps you should get out of the reviewing game? Would you be happy being paid to be this lazy, hackneyed and ignorant about modern art, film or literature?

16 thoughts on “Birtwistle’s Minotaur – the reviews

  1. Gosh, you’re on to me! and I’m still editing it!

    I see the reviews are out so I shall go and read them now… thanks.

  2. Good news! I love Birtwistle’s music; my boss is gone today, so I put on “The Mask of Orpheus” recording and fell in love with it all over again. “The tenth arch is….” I keep hoping to win the Lottery so I can finance ENO doing a revival. Or a new production of the incredible “Second Mrs. Kong”. Or someone doing “Exody”. Or “Earth Dances”. Or…..

    Great news about the audio and visual relays. I saw at the bottom of one of the reviews that Radio 3 is supposed to do theirs on May 31st; I’d love to know about the telecast; since I’m in Los Angeles, I’ll have to search my usual file theft haunts afterwards.

  3. Apparently not a telecast but being recorded for DVD — a last-minute decision.

    More sniffy reviews in Telegraph and Financial Times. And an appalling Newsnight Review on BBC2 last night, with literary luminaries who happen to be musical ignoramuses, saying they ‘really liked the show’ but ‘hated the music’ — ‘couldn’t wait for it to end’ — ‘Why can’t the singers learn to sing words so they don’t need those awful surtitles? You can hear the words in Sondheim’… Tony Parsons even called it a ‘con trick’.
    Come ON! How would THEY like it if we were as ignorantly rude about Joyce or Bunuel or Picasso? You’d think modernism has been around long enough for people to have got over these stupid prejudices. How long ago was Schoenberg, for heaven’s sake??
    But Newsnight Review is notoriously literature-biased anyway. I’ve never seen a ‘proper’ musician on there. (Max?? Where are you???)

    End of rant.

    Hooray for you guys who are coming tonight and to the remaining performances — it really is a treat. I’ll try to get the surtitles in the right places for you!! 😉

  4. I saw that Newsnight review Jonathan, and have been ranting exactly the same things to my poor wife all morning. I can’t imagine any Newsnight Reviewer saying, e.g. “Well, I liked this film, Memento, but the problem was the story was told all backwards and that really interfered with my understanding of the story”

    I had to laugh at Tony Parsons though when, completely without irony, he moaned “I couldn’t help thinking of my dad looking at my New York Dolls records and saying ‘this isn’t music'”. Joe Queenan’s bleat that “classical music is dead and this is its corpse” was almost as good. If a new Birtwistle opera filling Covent Garden every night to wide critical acclaim is a twitching corpse, then bring it on!

  5. “Apparently not a telecast but being recorded for DVD — a last-minute decision”

    YES! Since you worked on “The Mask of Orpheus”, was that ever filmed? Talk about a performance I’d love to see…..

    “If a new Birtwistle opera filling Covent Garden every night to wide critical acclaim is a twitching corpse, then bring it on!”

    But….but….people HATE that modern music! There’s NO TUNES and since we all know that the only thing that matters about music –the *only* thing– is whether it has hummable tunes and a catchy beat, they must all be drug-addled zombies buying tickets because their social betters told them to, right?


  6. Sorry Henry, don’t know how to contact you directly…

    Sorry, Mr Rambler, for taking up more of your comment space…

    Alas, The Mask of Orpheus was not televised as far as I know — too complicated, too expensive… What a missed opportunity.

    Was it Joe Queenan who said that the people next to him were ‘CLAPPING and CHEERING at the end! How dare they! Must be toadies too scared to admit they hated it!’??

    For the record, tonight’s performance was good too, though Johan Reuter forgot a line. The more I hear the score the more it makes sense. I had a couple of friends in the audience who are absolutely not musicians and loved it! They didn’t think it needed cutting either… One of them even said she shed a little tear for the Beast at the end.

  7. Saw it tonight. Absolutely tremendous on every level, and both my companions (one of whom is a complete musical illiterate, at least in terms of any technical education) loved it too – and the clapping and cheering sounded pretty genuine to me across the board.

    And it certainly didn’t need cutting – in fact, I thought the pacing was pretty much spot on, right up to one of the most delightfully abrupt endings I’ve ever encountered in an opera (I was expecting, and dreading, a final reconciliation scene between Theseus and Ariadne).

    The scenes with the Minotaur are phenomenally powerful – both the large-scale set-pieces and especially the three dreams, the emotional core of the opera. So much so that I’m glad Birtwistle and Harsent decided to place him firmly centre-stage in the (much shorter) second act, as I’d got bored with Theseus and Ariadne by then. That said, the scene where she consults the Snake Priestess was one of the visual/musical/(intentionally) comedic highlights.

    I’m glad someone’s preserving it on video as I can’t wait to see it again.

  8. A rave review from a surprising quarter – David Mellor in today’s Mail on Sunday. I can’t find it online, but the production gets the maximum five stars, and he found himself unexpectedly impressed by the music (given that his tastes generally veer towards the 19th century).


    “His music is highly concentrated and original. It’s modernist, of course, in the sense of jagged, aggressive blocks of sound often involving a huge array of percussion that initially creates a noise it’s easy to reject. Puccini he isn’t. But there’s also lyricism here. Birtwistle is not an atonal composer who rejects melody. He can be more readily linked to Stravinsky and other early 20th century modernists rather than some of his more exhibitionist contemporaries who have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Birtwistle wants to connect with an audience rather than alienate them.”

    …and so on in a similar vein.

  9. I was there!
    The opening night was an experience of a lifetime, but I’ve had to wait 75 years for it.

  10. We, my wife and I, went to the performance on Monday 21 April as our “Easter” treat. Expensive with the travel and hotel, but worth it. The music and words were superb; some scepticism about the sets however. I always love Birtwistle’s music and its line, and there was no disappointment. I missed 2nd Mrs Kong but otherwise I think I have seen them all. Would need to see some revivals, but The Minotaur rivals Gawain as a favourite.

  11. Just heard The Minotaur on Opera on 3. Absolutely magnificent, stunning, scary. Haven’t been affected like this since Lulu – Mr B is definitely the new Berg! As for the Parsons/Queenan anti-intellectual, dumbing-down conspirators – feed them to Asterios!

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