The Monster in the Maze Mesmerises Young and Old

05/06/2018

Jonathan Dove, The Monster in the Maze: Soloists of Gothenburg Opera, amateur choruses, Gothenburg Opera Orchestra and members of Västra Götaland Youth Symphony Orchestra / Martin Nagashima Toft (conductor), Gothenburg Opera main stage, 3.6.2018. (NS)

Daedalus (Anders Lorentzson, left centre) & Theseus (Joakim Bäckström, right centre)
leading the youths through the Labyrinth (c) Tilo Stengel

Cast:

King Minos (spoken role) – David Lundqvist
Theseus I – Joachim Bäckström
The Mother – Ann-Kristin Jones
Daedalus – Anders Lorentzson
Athenians and Cretans – Adult chorus
Youth of Athens – Youth chorus
Children of Athens – Children’s chorus

Dancers: Minotaur (Therese Fredriksson) & Theseus II (Andrzej Glosniak)

Production:

Libretto – Alasdair Middleton
Swedish translation – Erik Fägerborn
Director – Mattias Ermedahl
Set and costume design – Tomas Sjöstedt
Lighting design – Joakim Brink
Choreography – Cynthia Kai
Choreography for the dancers – Jérôme Delbey

After the stunning success in 2015 of a breakdancing Firebird with an ensemble including 78 amateur dancers, the Gothenburg Opera has continued to work on projects that engage the community not just as consumers of culture but also creators of it. This year they recruited 200 amateur musicians (180 singers and 20 instrumentalists) for the first Swedish production of Jonathan Dove’s The Monster in the Maze.

Unlike The Firebird, The Monster in the Maze was intended as a co-creative work built around amateur choruses. But this in no way involves ‘dumbing down’ one of the most famous stories from Greek mythology, nor compromising musical quality. This is my conclusion from this moving production, which gripped the whole audience including the smallest children.

Alasdair Middleton’s libretto removes some of the familiar aspects of the myth’s most famous version (such as Ariadne and her red thread) in order to focus the story on the young people who have been condemned to pay for the mistakes of their parents with their lives. The performance starts with King Minos’ decree to the defeated people of Athens: that they should send him ships filled with their hope – their children – to feed the Minotaur. The choruses open Act I with their reactions to this: the youth chorus (the young people being sent to Crete) sing of their fear and the anguish of parting, while the adult chorus (their parents) are crushed with despair and the children’s chorus (their younger siblings) plead with the youths to stay.

The generational differences are a theme of the opera, with hope residing in the younger choruses despite the despair of the older generation. This was one of the qualities brought out by Mattias Ermedahl’s dynamic production. I was also struck by the way the work communicated so well to small children who were perhaps seeing their first opera while being equally compelling to a seasoned operagoer such as your correspondent.

Cocky young Theseus (Joakim Bäckström) promises to go with the youths and slay the Minotaur, with infectious rock rhythms that revive the spirits of the youths in a sparkling vocal and choreographic display. Mr Bäckström’s youthful and expressive tenor was the perfect vehicle for his heroism but also his sorrow at leaving his mother behind against her heartfelt pleas.

The Mother (Ann-Kristin Jones) and Theseus thus are an example of the many anguished partings between parents and children, which is skilfully brought out in the music. Ms Jones has longer – almost Wagnerian – lines, delivered with a controlled passion that touched my heartstrings. Jonathan Dove has adroitly given each soloist their own musical style as part of the opera.

Cynthia Kai’s choreography and Joakim Brink’s lighting heightened the effects of the music brilliantly. The end of Act I (with the youths and Theseus disappearing in silhouette) was a fine example, but the bloodthirsty chanting of the Cretans in Act II and the combat between Theseus and the Minotaur were also compelling. Jérôme Delbey’s fight choreography for the latter scene and the performances of Therese Fredriksson and Andrzej Glosniak were terrific.

The minimal set was used very creatively together with the lighting to create an impression of the Labyrinth and the youth chorus and Theseus all acted with absolute conviction. Just as panic begins to spread they come across Daedalus, imprisoned in the Labyrinth he himself designed and hunted by the being that he helped to bring to life. Anders Lorentzson movingly sang of his cruel fate with a shade of his sense of guilt. In this version he joins the Athenians and it is his knowledge of the Labyrinth (rather than a ball of thread) that allows them to escape, but only after a sinister musical build up and the climactic confrontation with the Minotaur.

The orchestration is unusual, with no violins or violas but large cello and double bass sections, and extra on-stage brass that played to great effect first with the entry of the Minotaur and then in the finale. The dark string sound is tremendously atmospheric of fear and despair, but the same orchestra produces an utterly luminous finale. The 180 amateur singers sang their hearts out both here and earlier in the opera, and performed with an assurance approaching that of the Gothenburg Opera’s fine professional chorus. This was a performance that was rightly cheered to the rafters.

Niklas Smith

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