April 18, 2008 / 12:31 AM / 10 years ago

Blood-drenched monster myth brought to opera stage

LONDON (Reuters) - The grim Greek myth of the Minotaur, half-beast and half-human, has been brought to life in a new, blood-drenched opera by leading British composer Harrison Birtwistle.

Composer Harrison Birtwistle poses for photographers in front of a sculpture of a minotaur at Covent Garden in London April 8, 2008. REUTERS/Toby Melville

The 73-year-old, dubbed the “high priest of contemporary British music” by the Daily Telegraph, has worked on the piece for three years, and composed it specifically for the Royal Opera House where it had its world premiere this week.

A group of Innocents is sacrificed to the beast in his lair as a crowd around the bull ring bays for blood. One is raped, and vulture-like, screaming Keres tear the hearts from the victims.

“I think it’s a very dark piece,” Birtwistle told Reuters before the curtains went up on the eagerly anticipated work.

Critics agreed, describing the piece as “barbaric” and “strange.” Several reminded readers that, as expected with Birtwistle, the powerful and primitive score offered few hum-along arias to take away after the show.

“The Sound of Music it ain’t,” wrote The Times’s Richard Morrison.

Birtwistle had renowned British bass John Tomlinson in mind for the part of the Minotaur, and his performance from behind a semi-transparent bull’s mask evokes the audience’s sympathy rather than revulsion in the new interpretation of the myth.

Librettist and poet David Harsent came up with the idea of giving the Minotaur the power of language through dreams, allowing it to express the loneliness and depravity of an existence trapped in the labyrinth and an animal’s body.

The only other time the Minotaur speaks, rather than grunts and roars, is near the end as life ebbs away. “Now I can speak .... now I am almost human; now is the right time to die.”


Birtwistle likened the man-beast duality to Jekyll and Hyde.

“He (Harsent) had to divide the character into two. He could not be expressed in the same person,” he said. “Our received information about the Minotaur is as an animal, but in his dreams he becomes coherent and questions his whole existence.”

Harsent wanted to challenge the assumption that the human Minotaur was preferable to the animal in light of the suffering caused by conflicts the world over.

“When he identifies the human side of himself he is not certain he’s found something worthy and virtuous,” he said.

“I think there are other ways of looking at this — you might well have it the wrong way around. Look at the man, not the beast. I think the myth stays relevant and stays modern.”

He also casts Ariadne as a woman prepared to do anything to escape Crete and Theseus as someone scheming to get rid of her even before he agrees to her plan.

“I don’t believe in heroes,” Harsent said. “There might be moments of heroism but I don’t really believe in heroes.”

To complicate the relationship between the three main characters, Harsent insists that the white bull which couples with Ariadne’s mother, spawning the Minotaur, is Poseidon.

Because Poseidon may have been Theseus’s father, the twist means Theseus and the Minotaur are probably half-brothers, just as Ariadne is the beast’s half-sister.

Critical reaction has been largely positive, with the Guardian newspaper giving “The Minotaur” its top five star rating.

The Royal Opera House has cut its prices for the opera, and they range from 5-65 pounds ($10-130) rather than the usual 7-165 pounds. The opera runs to May 3.


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