World Premiere of MacRae and Welsh’s Anthropocene – Scottish Opera’s Chilling Fantasy

27/01/2019

Stuart MacRae, Anthropocene (opera in three acts with libretto by Louise Welsh): Soloists, The Orchestra of Scottish Opera / Stuart Stratford (conductor), Theatre Royal Glasgow, 24.1.2019. (GT)

Stephen Gadd, Jeni Bern & Marc Le Brocq (c) James Glossop

Production:

Director and Lighting designer – Matthew Richardson
Set and Costume designer – Samal Blak
Movement director – Kally Lloyd-Jones
Associate Lighting designer – Zoe Spurr
Fight director – Raymond Short

Cast:

Ice – Jennifer France
Professor Prentice – Jeni Bern
Charles – Stephen Gadd
Miles – Benedict Nelson
Harry King – Mark Le Brocq
Daisy – Sarah Champion
Captain Ross – Paul Whelan
Vasco – Anthony Gregory

This creative team of Stuart MacRae (music) and Louise Welsh (libretto) won many plaudits with their production of The Devil Inside three years ago has been developing through their commissions at Scottish Opera and elsewhere. The plot of MacRae’s fifth opera is set in the frozen wastes of Greenland in the Arctic Circle, the icy setting felt appropriate with the arrival in Scotland of freezing temperatures a couple of days before this performance. Certainly the costumes of heavy duty winter wear were much the same as those worn by many in the audience.

The creators of this opera borrowed elements of Frankenstein and The Tempest and the myth of a lost boat locked in the Arctic Sea invites comparisons with Shackleton’s Endurance. According to Welsh the other sources approached in their research were Frazer’s The Golden Bough and the story of Christ. The narrative ranges between true-life adventure and mythical allegory. Contemporary issues in climate change and the domination of humankind over nature burrow away in the subtext of the libretto.

The first scene of Act I is set on the bridge of the boat with the ice closing in on the expeditionary ship Anthropocene, and when explorers return with a block of ice containing a mysterious young woman inside, different emotions arise among the ship’s crew. Her arrival on the boat causes misfortune for the crew. The discovery of the woman causes the reporter to call to New York; whilst King, the ship’s entrepreneur owner, becomes more paranoid; and jealousy arises because of the on-off relationships between the owner’s daughter and some of the crew. In a fight, a sailor is murdered, and his ghost haunts the latter scenes. The denouement returns the ship to the sea after Ice (the woman from the ice cube) returns to her former self.

The music by the Inverness-born composer MacRae (who was inspired by James MacMillan) is modernist with influences from Bartók, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Bernstein, and freely uses quartertones in striking effect particularly in the final scene. MacRae uses several unfamiliar percussion instruments to give more colour to the score’s harmonic palette. The intermittent roar of the ship’s engines creates an atmosphere and builds the tension. The weakness of the score is the lack of genuine musical individuality, on the plus side were several well-conceived scenes, particularly the Act I duet between Ice and Professor Prentice with beautiful accompaniment from the harp and strings; also in the appearance of the Northern Lights in Act III; and the depiction of a wintry storm is frightening in its sudden dramatic colours. Several attractively written male and female vocal trios are interwoven into the score allowing the singers opportunity for expression. Throughout the three acts, brief musical interludes kept the momentum carrying along, yet there was a repetitiveness to the changing scenes – dominated by a white backdrop and little transformation from scene to scene – and there was little drama on stage. The enactment of the colours of the Aurora Borealis were poorly lit, perhaps the lighting will work on a future staging but here seemed inappropriate and lacking effect.

In the cast the most impressive was soprano Jennifer French’s Ice. She has already made her mark here most notably in last year’s Flight, and Ariadne auf Naxos, French has a fine voice but on this evening had little to work with. However the singing by the male singers was very good; both dramatic and expressive the dark bass voice of Paul Whelan’s Captain Ross was powerfully commanding, while Anthony Gregory’s Vasco was good in his inflection, sometimes one was reminded of Britten’s vocal language. Certainly Harry King, the tenor Marc Le Brocq, was excellent and given some extended singing whilst the baritone of Benedict Nelson’s Miles was admirable. All the characterisations were outstanding with the leading parts given their unique leitmotif – an interesting aspect of this opera. The two female roles taken by Jeni Bern as Prentice and mezzo soprano Sarah Champion’s Daisy were both stunning in their acting and tessitura. Indeed the ship-bound production has its affinities with Britten’s Billy Budd though without the genius of the latter composer.

The big problem for new music is to ensure a second run of performances; for Anthropocene, there are performances in Edinburgh and next month it appears in London. MacRae stated: ‘People can expect still to feel tense even after the opera finishes.’ Certainly the music (which could easily be a film score) has an underlying tension but without its special effects, the material is rather barren of originality and this weighs the whole opera down. As the opera goes on tour, inevitably the imperfections will get ironed out and the cast will grow into the music, and it is encouraging that this company has taken on such a three-act opera of modernist music. Whether it will stand the test of time remains to be seen, however.

Gregor Tassie

For more about Anthropocene click here.

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