Dealing with an important or remarkable subject does not guarantee that the resulting play/opera/work of art will be equally important or remarkable. Conversely, having a dull or mundane starting point does not negate the possibility of producing an outstanding piece of art.
Now, if you can combine a great story with an inventive and original portrayal of it, you should be onto a winner. This is what The Hague’s Amare and Residentie Orkest has aimed for with Maduro, a brand new show which premiered at the city’s shiny new concert hall complex last night.
George Maduro was born in Curaçao in 1916 into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family. While studying law in Leiden, he fell in love with his Protestant childhood friend, Hedda. After the capitulation of Holland Maduro was made a prisoner of war but released after six months. Following numerous heroic escapades with the resistance he was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in Saarbrücken. He was then sent to Dachau and died there just before the end of the war. As a slightly incongruous memorial the Madurodam miniature Netherlands park was opened in Scheveningen in 1952.
Now, to me that sounds like an interesting enough story on which to base any work of art. So, does this new piece produced in collaboration with Kwekers in de kunst, De Dutch Don’t Dance Division and Rhubarb do the war hero’s story justice? Have they managed to produce a great operatic work from a great story?
Well, although Maduro is billed as an opera, it is more musical theatre with a lot of spoken word. That said, composer Bob Zimmeramn and librettist Pieter van de Waterbeemd’s new work is nothing if not ambitious. There is an enormous (I estimated about sixty-strong) chorus, some excellent dancing from the ten members of De Dutch Don’t Dance Division and a large cast, all presented on the huge stage of the Amare Dance Theater.
That giant space was crowded for the opening number with the chorus all dressed in drab war-time clothes singing a song that was very reminiscent of a Brecht/Weill musical. This was really well done and I hoped it was setting the mood for the evening but for the next scene, and all the following ones, the style veered from Broadway musical to light opera, to grand opera and even to Dutch cabaret.
The story follows George Maduro from infancy to his death in the Nazi concentration camp, the narrative being interwoven with the campaign, some five or six year later, to create his memorial, which was to become the Madurodam.
The exuberant Dutch musical comedy star and cabaretiste Doris Baaten played Bep Boon-van der Starp, the main campaigner for the Maduro monument. Her performance never flagged and her set-piece number with the white-tie and tailed male dancers, all brandishing spades, was one of the few colourful high spots of the show and was a bit like an old Gene Kelly musical.
For most of Maduro the vast Amare stage was bare, and depended on lighting, various frames and other hanging devices, plus the occasional projection, to create the scene. The more intimate moments were rather swallowed up by the big empty space but the fine chorus was in its element.
There was a lot of spoken word (in Dutch, of course. No surtitles) to move the story along, most of it performed before a plain black front-cloth. I think the presentation of these scenes was disappointing and unimaginative. At least they could have painted the cloth with something. Front-cloth scenes are used to enable scenery to be changed behind them without stopping the action. As there was no scenery and just a few pieces of furniture these dialogue scenes could easily have been presented on the main body of the stage, isolated by lighting, while the few bits of décor were positioned in the darkness. There were many other elements that did not work and some which were simply amateur or misjudged, like the scene with the soldiers, responsible for defending their homeland, who looked and behaved like adolescent boy scouts at a summer camp.
In the title role, Alexander de Jong is a fine singer and decent actor and his duet with Marlies Ruigrok as Hedda at the beginning of the second half was the most operatic and, for me, the best moment of the show.
In the pit, the members of the Residentie Orkest under the baton of Rick Schoonbeek managed to effortlessly negotiate the myriad styles and were the glue that held the whole piece together.
Will Maduro join the canon of grand opera and play the great opera houses of the world – or even Broadway? Probably not. Will it become a staple of Dutch theatre over the coming years? Possibly. Michael Hasted 2nd September 2022