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:
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.
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.
[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.
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:
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?