The idea of creating an opera with singers of all ages, from children to adults, with young instrumentalists side by side with professional orchestral musicians, was an educational idea of "the Simons", Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey. Composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton were collaborators selected for the task, and the Berlin Philharmonic joined forces with the London Symphony Orchestra and the Aix-en-Provence Festival. In this ambitious European project, The Monster in the Maze, each station was to present its own edition, based on local circumstances and, of course, language. Alain Perroux, dramaturg in Aix, was responsible for the French version of Middleton's libretto.
A story from Greek mythology was chosen, the conflict between Crete and Athens, according to which the Cretan King, after losing his son to the Minotaur, forced Athens to send every young boy and girl into the Labyrinth to die in the fight against the Minotaur.
This is a story of good and evil. It is about the hero Theseus, who enters the labyrinth to fight the minotaur and thereby saves Athens. The people are happy and contented. But there are contemporary parallels in the Mediterranean and Greece, although the ultimate victory of a Greek seems a distant hope today.
The education project is conceived to give amateurs a chance to participate as singers and thus to influence their further musical development.
Through Marie-Ève Signeyrole's production for Aix-en-Provence, the piece wins an entirely new dimension. She poses the question of what the ancient Greek story has to say to us today. Her answer is through intelligent references to our own time, to what is happening in the Mediterranean region, the borders between rich and poor, a perilous passage to a better world and to what constitutes a monster today – a deadly tangle of social and economic woes.
Signeyrole uses images that we recognise from news reports on refugees camps – the children from Athens are first seen behind bars when they arrive in Crete. A clever move is the use of a live video camera on the stage, showing giant projected close-ups of concerned Athenian parents. The images draw the focus of the viewer towards the fates of individuals, which could otherwise be lost in the crowd. This intensifies the effects for both the participants and the viewers.
The big choral scenes are impressive. The effect of having 300 singers on stage is considerable, and the vocal accomplishment of the performers is significant, especially in the light of their circumstances. The collective emotions are mirrored by Theseus and his mother, once again telling of the concerns of a mother for her child. Theseus, who appears as a cheerful hero, promises the Athenians their freedom with vocal power and charisma. The vocally secured tenor Damien Bigourdan shines as Theseus. The same goes for Lucia Roche as his mother, who is equally able to hold her own vocally against the massed choir and orchestra. This is perhaps the most emotionally effective scene, the farewell from the children and the fear the parents have for their children, whom they must entrust to the sea, and thus to certain death. The relevance to current events is inescapable and strong.
The spoken role of Minos, King of Crete, is played with convincing vindictiveness by Miloud Khétib, while baritone Damien Pass sings the small role of Dadalus solidly.
One of the director's more endearing ideas is that members of the audience, both young and old, are given the task of folding a paper boat, instructed by a charming boy of around nine years old. The boats become meaningful in the final scene, when the children travel home in a ship.
On the podium, Sir Simon Rattle directed the London Symphony Orchestra and his cast with visible pleasure. Dove's music depends greatly on dramatic effects and complex rhythms, and is carefully constructed to communicate simply and effectively, just as the text is made with ease of translation in mind.
In all, a profoundly impressive evening, and a formidable team achievement. A brilliant educational idea that is beautifully combined with high artistic standards.