Jonathan Dove - Monster in the Maze
Festival Aix-en-Provence, 2015
Simon Rattle, Marie-Ève Signeyrole, Damien Bigourdan, Lucie Roche, Damien Pass, Miloud Khétib
ARTE Concert - 9 July 2015
There's always a chance that international initiatives to promote opera could end up as rather bland and well-meaning. Actually, there's not really any foundation for that statement, since the evidence as far as I've seen it is that such ventures are usually quite successful and innovative. Such is the case with Jonathan Dove's retelling of Theseus and the Minotaur myth The Monster in the Maze, and the reasons for its success are clearly apparent in this French production of the new work at the 2015 Aix-en-Provence Festival.
Certainly the principal reason for its success would seem to be down to the figures behind in the commissioning and composition of the work, as well as their commitment to get behind the idea, mentor it and promote it. Co-commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey, the idea was to have the composer Jonathan Dove write a work scored for professional musicians, young musicians and amateur singers. That's a good cross-section of talent capable of bringing together a creative cauldron of experience, new ideas and ideas from outside the traditional opera mindset.
Rather than set out exactly how the work would be performed, it was then workshopped for different interpretations for productions with The London Symphony Orchestra, the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Judging by the French première of the work at Aix, it would seem that the success of the work rests then on how it allows the creative talents of each of its venues to come up with their own response to the work, gaining particularly from engagement with the young people who serve as the chorus. Obviously however, the work itself has to inspire the young singers, and surprisingly, Greek myth would seem to provide exactly what is needed.
It's more than just the fact that Greek drama traditionally relies on a Chorus to provide commentary and active involvement in the narrative. In the legend of the Minotaur it's possible for the young performers to relate to the deeper themes when it concerns the fate of young children who are innocent victims of a cruel regime, victims of old ways that have nothing to do with them. In The Monster in the Maze, it's Minos, the ruler of Athens, who has decreed that young victims be sent to the island of Crete as sacrifices to the half-bull/half-human creature, the Minotaur. This is a surprisingly potent image that young and old can creatively engage with.
At the time of the performance of the work in the summer of 2015, I'm sure many could draw comparisons between the themes of the work and the Greek economic crisis, as well as the refugee crisis in Syria affecting Greece and Turkey. It certainly isn't an aspect that is highlighted in the French production but that just testifies to the universal relevance of the drama and the power of its themes. For the French production at Aix however, there is clearly a basic emotional engagement with the needless deaths of young children, standing up for what is right and having the conviction to believe that one among them can lead the way out of the cruel dictates of rulers using corrupt means of exercising power according to old laws.
The participation in the workshopping of the work, in finding the best way of representing these ideas on the stage, is also undoubtedly empowering for the young participants. Which is great for opera, as it shows that the medium is not inaccessible or beyond their capabilities. Not only that, but the judging by the response to the work in these performances, where it was warmly received by an appreciative audience for the genuine qualities of the music, there is real validation for the performances and the production as a whole.
For its French language version at Aix, Alasdair Middleton's libretto is adapted superbly by Alain Perroux. I haven't heard the English language 'original', but in French, Le Monstre du Labyrinthe sounds wonderful, the words and singing flowing with true musicality that engages dramatically with the story, particularly Damien Bigourdan's excellent Theseus. Dove's score is not Harrison Birtwistle by any means, but it provides a fresh modern take on classical themes that helps make the subject feel relevant and real. Intended to be a small orchestra of soloists, with the chorus providing much more of the musical force, Rattle nonetheless manages to get a glorious huge sound out of the LSO, accompanied by members of the Mediterranean Youth Orchestra.
The staging at Aix also provides a fresh modern take on the classical Greek drama. Marie-Ève Signeyrole directs well, managing to keep things moving without any clutter despite the huge numbers of child singers on the stage. Everything is used to tell the story and take it from one place to the next, over the sea and into an underground labyrinth, using back projections, animated sequences and mirrors. The depiction of the Minotaur as an origami construction might make its defeat seem as easy as making a paper boat during the interlude, but The Monster in the Maze is all about making what seems impossible actually achievable.
Links: Monster in the Maze, Festival d'Aix-en-Provence, ARTE Concert