Opera Essentials: The Minotaur
As the mythical Minotaur returns to the main stage, an introduction to Harrison Birtwistle's acclaimed opera.
11 January 2013 at 12.08pm | Comment on this article
The opera tells the story of the Minotaur, half-man and half-bull, who has been imprisoned in the Labyrinth on the Greek island of Crete. Every year, a group of young Athenians are sent to be sacrificed to him. Theseus, Prince of Athens, vows to end this ritual by killing the Minotaur. But can he succeed, and will Ariadne, Princess of Crete, be able to help him and achieve her own desire to leave the island?
The Minotaur was commissioned by The Royal Opera and first performed at the Royal Opera House in 2008. The librettist, David Harsent, was also Harrison Birtwistle’s librettist for his first Royal Opera commission, Gawain, and has worked with Birtwistle on several other projects. The Minotaur opened to enthusiastic reviews and has been released on DVD.
The opera’s story comes from Greek mythology, and has inspired many writers and artists. Librettist David Harsent adds a layer of psychology to the drama, exploring why the Minotaur is driven to savagery, why Ariadne is so eager to help Theseus and why he later abandons her.
Birtwistle makes use of a vast variety of orchestral colours to create a highly dramatic score for The Minotaur. Particularly striking effects include the sensual solo saxophone that accompanies Ariadne as she describes her mother’s seduction of the Minotaur’s bull father, a battery of percussion and chattering chorus as Ariadne consults the Snake Priestess in Act II and the delicate, translucent textures of the scenes depicting the Minotaur’s dreams, where he imagines he can speak.
Stephen Langridge’s production of The Minotaur pays tribute to the Classical world. The Minotaur is tortured in a space that resembles an amphitheatre, surrounded by a masked chorus – like the chorus in Greek theatre – while a bull’s head, recalling those used in ancient Cretan rituals, is a key part of the set. Alison Chitty’s designs also acknowledge artists throughout the ages fascinated by bulls and minotaurs, from Classical sculptors to Picasso.
The Minotaur is on stage from 17 to 28 January 2013.