Sword and sandal epics have been all the rage ever since Russell Crowe slashed his way to cinema stardom in Gladiator four years ago. On the day that Wolfgang Petersen's film Troy was released, Scottish Opera premi red its Greek mythology-inspired opera The Minotaur at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.
The Minotaur is the company's first opera for children. Though there is a clear distinction between operas for children to perform, such as Britten's Noye's Fludde, and operas for children to watch, such as Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, The Minotaur exists as both.
A truncated version for eight- to 14-year-olds to perform has been on a five-month tour (ending in late June) to 100 schools across Scotland and now the two-hour professional production, with a cast of eight and seven instrumentalists, is visiting Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness over the next three weeks.
The Minotaur is about Theseus, a mythical Athenian hero who had a swashbuckling life and killed the man-eating monster of the title in the labyrinth below King Minos of Crete's palace. Pupils who see it after performing it will already know the storyline, but the main stage production is not the heroic operatic action adventure that they may have been hoping for.
Director Mark Hathaway is keen for it to be seen as a boy to man coming-of-age story, but when we first see Theseus (played by Paul Keohone) as a boy, he is dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, while all around wear togas, he has a shaved head and the slouch of a middle-aged man. In act two he strokes the hair of his lover, Princess Ariadne, like a father calming a distressed daughter. He has no boyish energy, no sense of fun and no teenage lust. Given the artful tunelessness of Theseus's music, Scottish Opera should have gone more for looks than voice when casting the part.
Act One is a drag. The Parthenon rubble set is dramatic and gorgeously lit, but there is little else to grab your attention. Louise Innes, as the Oracle and Theseus' mother, uses her voice to the maximum in a clear and characterful performance, but the words of the other singers pass indistinctly over an undulating, unmemorable score.
Two plasma screens either side of the stage inform the audience about what is happening and they are needed because the acting is largely expressionless.
This production seems intensely afraid of dumbing down and is sprinkled with frustrating symbolism. Why does Theseus enter the Minotaur's cave through a man's eye in a large black and white photograph? Why is red string wound and unwound at the end? Tying rope around a curtain and projecting clouds does not adequately suggest a sea journey and the Minotaur commits hara-kiri instead of being slain.
The film animations consist of a short cartoon projected at the beginning and something resembling the title sequence of Dr Who to represent Theseus's journey to the underground labyrinth (he hangs on wires in front of it). Something visual is needed to illustrate the dreary wordiness of King Aegeus's storytelling in the first act.
Perhaps the cast could add zest and largesse to this production and give it some dramatic tension, but there is a glaring paradox at its heart.
Scottish Opera is happy to serve up melodrama, frivolity and wacky ideas to adults in its production of The Magic Flute and its crisp and breezy La Boh me. Why then, does it turn out this dull, lifeless modern opera for children?