United Kingdom Mark-Anthony Turnage, Greek: Music Theatre Wales: Michael Rafferty, conductor. Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 1.10.2013 (PCG)
Marcus Farnsworth (baritone) – Eddy
Sally Silver (soprano) – Eddy’s mum, Waitress, Sphinx I
Louise Winter (mezzo-soprano) – Eddy’s sister, Waitress who becomes Eddy’s wife, Sphinx II
Gwion Thomas (baritone) – Eddy’s dad, Café manager, Chief of police
“First operas,” said Weber, “should be drowned at birth like puppies.” Composers nowadays are more humane that he was, but the fact remains that the greatest masters of the genre, Wagner, Verdi and Puccini, either never attempted to stage their first operas or never sought to revive them subsequent to their original presentation. Turnage himself may have had similar instincts – he stated in his notes for the twenty-year-old Decca recording that “I haven’t written anything like it since” but that “it was an important work for me and exorcised quite a few demons along the way.” Greek received quite a spate of productions in the ten years following its 1988 première in Munich, but there don’t seem to have been any since 1998 (apart from a small-scale staging on a severely limited budget in Chicago) until this new revival by Music Theatre Wales was first given in 2011. (It was here receiving its first outing in Cardiff).
It is certainly true that in his second full-scale opera The Silver Tassie twelve years later Turnage turned his attention to a much more conventional topic, even though more recently in Anna Nicole he has returned to the more demotic style of his earlier opera. At the time of its original première Greek gathered quite a lot of attention for its use of Steven Berkoff’s text, plentifully peppered with expletives and four-letter words; but it has to be noted that, without the libretto provided with the disc, a lot of the dialogue in the Argo recording is pretty inaudible (I have not seen the DVD version with the same cast which also remains available). Nor was the use of four-letter words in opera entirely a new innovation – over ten years before Tippett had startled Covent Garden audiences with a very audible setting of “You mother-fucking bastard!” in The Ice Break.
Nevertheless Greek needs to be encountered on the stage rather than just in a recorded performance, although its cinematic style of presentation allows little time for the many changes of scene which were clearly originally intended to be realistic depictions of modern life in the Thatcher era of the 1980s. Here the orchestra were placed behind the singers on an open stage – with the sometimes disconcerting result of an impression of a semi-staged concert performance, not assisted by the fact that during the opening scene the most prominent colour onstage came from the brilliant red hair of the lady cellist. Perhaps the use of a scrim, or more selective lighting, might have helped here.
It says a great deal for the singing of the protagonists that they overcame these obstacles with such dramatic panache. From the very moment of his entrance, using four-letters words in an argument with the unfortunate girl taking the tickets, Marcus Farnsworth seized the audience by the scruff of the neck and didn’t let them go. He riveted the attention of the shell-shocked audience with his depiction of a mindless thug, and then proceeded to engage their sympathies with a sense of self-deprecating humour. And his delivery of the text was streets ahead of that on the original cast recording, managing indeed to make a great many of the words audible – in which the placing of the orchestra might indeed have been of assistance. The other singers struggled more to make the dialogue clear, but at moments of crisis they were assisted by the use of surtitles projected onto television screens around the stage which was a sensible solution to the problems created by the composer. Taking on multiple roles, they created a whole series of believable characters even though their dramatic involvement never quite matched that of the peerless Farnsworth. But the final disclosure of murder and incest was gripping from all four participants; I found myself frozen in my seat to such an extent that I developed painful pins and needles in my arm.
The old Argo recording sometimes disclosed the problems of singers being asked to sing in ‘estuary English’ with often unconvincing results; here a collection of more generic and less geographically precise accents was adopted, with increased clarity of diction and generally greater vocal ease. It is noteworthy how well Turnage writes for the voices, never asking them to step outside their normal parameters (with the exception of a couple of falsetto passages) which assists immeasurably in the creation of real personalities – a virtue which he has carried forward to his later stage works. The cast never put a foot wrong even when they were occasionally disconcerted by not being able to see the beat of the conductor behind them. Turnage’s orchestral writing is always full of interest and was well interpreted by the players under Rafferty, right down to their beating of shields during the riot scene. By the way, was it Turnage’s intention that the primal scream produced by the orchestra at moments of crisis should echo the final unresolved discord of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly?
The production by Michael McCarthy was gripping from start to finish, and he also made a very positive impression during the pre-performance talk which (as usual) he gave to explain the reaons behind his staging decisions. One might take issue with a couple of points. He confessed in his talk that he had found difficulty in realising the scene with the Sphinx, the one point in Steven Berkoff’s original play when the mythological basis of the plot takes precedence over the modern updating. His solution, to turn the two-headed monster into a couple of “slags” (to use Eddy’s description of them) produced a questionable effect even while it highlighted Eddy’s misogyny. The fact that Sally Silver had to continually adjust her ill-fitting blond wig may have been intended to have a dramatic point, although what this might have been was not clear; but in the event it simply suggested that she was having trouble with the stage prop. However McCarthy had observed that in the full score (although not in the vocal score) the composer had indicated that the two voices should be amplified, and this certainly assisted in their clarity of diction as well as enabling their various spits and hisses to be heard clearly over the raucous orchestration. At the end of the scene Eddy beheaded the Sphinx by the simple process of removing their wigs which seemed all too simplistic a solution.
Which brings one to the second problem with the production, its simple avoidance of any real sense of violence. The many scenes involving this were simulated by mime, sometimes in an unconvincing imitation of slow-motion, with the avoidance of any physical contact. Eddy’s killing of the café manager was particularly toned down, with his final squirting of a ketchup bottle onto the prone body to simulate blood seeming merely gratuitous. Without that sense of Eddy’s uncontrolled aggression the character becomes diminished, more sinned against than sinning, and as a result he engages the audience’s sympathy more than either Berkoff or Turnage surely intended. When at the end, after his positive affirmation of incest, he simply bolted from the theatre (which could well alarm any passer-by encountering this maniac with blood pouring from his eyes!) the remaining members of the cast were left dumbly on the stage to make a rather embarrassed exit, which gave a rather downbeat tone to the ending and left the audience unsure when to applaud. Surely a more positive conclusion could have been devised, even at the risk of bringing a suggestion of the end of Act One in Wagner’s Die Walküre.
The production was mounted under the aegis of Welsh National Opera, which meant that there was a very substantial audience which packed out the small and unresonant venue and formed a long queue outside waiting to take up the unreserved seating. The hall became very warm even before the performance started. One wonders what some of the WNO’s more conventionally orientated audience made of the work; one lady in the queue, learning that I was a critic, asked me anxiously if the work would be anything like Tosca. Quite a few people took advantage of the interval not to return for the Second Act, but even afterwards I overheard a couple of members of the audience who were busily discussing the relative merits of the WNO’s Donizetti stagings confess that they had found the performance “enjoyable” and “entertaining” – so Turnage may well have made some converts here.
During the pre-performance talk Rafferty told us that when Henze originally commissioned Turnage to write the opera he suggested that Turnage should approach Edward Bond for a libretto. Turnage apparently wrote to Bond, but received no answer (given the texts which Bond had provided for Henze himself, none of which produced any music to match the composer’s earlier operas, Turnage may well have had a lucky escape); so Turnage turned to Berkoff who himself suggested the use of his play Greek originally written in 1980. One also understands that Berkoff was not altogether pleased with the manner in which Turnage treated his text – one imagines that he might have been alarmed by how few of his words could be heard – but he might have been more satisfied with this performance.
The staging is being taken on tour during the autumn – to Birmingham Town Hall on 4 October, the Linbury Studio Theatre in London on 21, 25 and 26 October, and to the RNCM in Manchester on 12 November. Audiences in those locations should make an effort to attend, but the performance on 26 October is being recorded by the BBC for future transmission. Is it too much to hope that this broadcast could at some stage find its way onto CD? We badly need a new recording of this score to replace the old Argo which begins to sound decidedly dated now. A new recording would also serve to rescue the opera from the category of a ‘period piece’ to which it could all too easily be consigned. And even though it is very much a first opera, with its concomitant sense of experimentation, it doesn’t really deserve to be drowned.
Paul Corfield Godfrey