Impressive Production of Anderson’s New Greek Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Julian Anderson, Thebans (world premiere): Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the English National Opera, Edward Gardner (conductor). Coliseum, London, 3.5.2014 (MB)

Oedipus – Roland Wood
Creon – Peter Hoare
Tiresias – Matthew Best
Jocasta – Susan Bickley
Stranger from Corinth, Haemon – Anthony Gregory
Shepherd – Paul Sheehan
Messenger, Theseus – Christopher Ainslie
Antigone – Julia Sporsén
Polynices – Jonathan McGovern
Eteocles – Matt Casey

Pierre Audi (director)
Tom Pye (set designs)
Christof Hetzer (costumes)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Lysander Ashton (video designs)

There can be no doubting the ambition to this, Julian Anderson’s first opera, with a libretto ‘by Frank McGuinness after Sophocles’. Its three acts adapt not just one play from Sophocles’s Theban trilogy, but all three. Starting in the past – as the opening curtain informs us – the first act entitled ‘The Fall of Oedipus’, we move to the future, ‘Antigone’, before concluding with the present, ‘The Death of Oedipus’. Initially, I found myself sceptical about the reordering, wondering what lay behind it other than a desire to be different; however, when the third act came, I felt the sense – prior to reading these words from Anderson, in an eloquent programme note – that the act was ‘all about endings … the mysterious, timeless atmosphere of this sacred wood’ at Colonnus lending ‘a special and quite different mood … which would be impossible to place anywhere but at the end’. There did indeed seem to be a finality arising from subject matter and treatment, perhaps even from Sophocles having written it last.

McGuinness’s libretto is in many respects highly skilful; it packs a great deal in, without necessarily seeming to do so, not least in sometimes lengthy passages of narrative. There is what we might consider to be real poetry in it, though sometimes there are clichéd phrases – ‘done and dusted’, for instance – which seem in context slightly to jar rather than carrying knowing weight. Perhaps, though, I simply misunderstood, and the task of writing words intended to be sung, whilst at the same time not knowing what the music will be, is not an easy one.  I was not entirely convinced by the suddenness of the ending, whether in terms of words or music. Antigone was seemingly cut off in mid flow, shortly after the strangely anti-climactic death of her father, that anti-climax more a product, I think, of the music’s tailing off than the libretto. It was, however, clearly intended as such, Anderson claiming that there ‘are no clear answers’ in Sophocles, McGuinness, or his own contribution. Perhaps, again, more would become apparent upon a second hearing. At any rate, the Lear-like quality to this scene came across with considerable power, not only in terms of Antigone’s faithful love, but also the haunting by death. I can imagine it being objected that this is as much drama ‘about’ drama as the thing itself, but in practice, the telescoping, the selection of particular points in time, and the enabling of those points to encompass more of the action, works well. In any case, the Theban plays are so much part of our collective consciousness, that we do not always have to start from the very beginning.

Anderson’s own contribution proved, for me at least, more variable. His writing is, it hardly need be said, highly accomplished, the composer’s virtuosic command of the orchestra never in doubt. The first act in particular meanders. Perhaps one might claim that to be the point; but whilst timings in the programme put it at the length of the second and third acts combined, it seemed, if anything, longer still. Although those latter acts are tauter, even there I found it difficult to discern an individual voice. It is certainly not a ‘difficult’ work; a great deal of the musical language is tonal in quality, not necessarily a problem, but is it perhaps a problem that much of it sounds as if it might have been written by a Stravinsky imitator not so very much less than a century ago? At any rate, the contrast, however unfair, with the blazing originality of Œdipus Rex, is not a little glaring. Maybe composers feel that the time for problematisation of opera is over; if so, on this evidence, it is not entirely clear that they are right to do so.

That said, there are interesting touches and, indeed, rather more than that. Microtonal sliding, for instance, disrupts or at least questions the otherwise stultifying metrical regularity – clearly a deliberate choice – in Creon’s Act II police state, as well as responding to the narrative we hear introduced from outside. Tiresias’s otherworldly strangeness registers not only in his gender-bending scenic portrayal, but also in the alterity of his tuning. Indeed, in some respects, his prophetic truth and its musical portrayal seem to haunt the third act all the more, when he is not even present on stage. I have no reason to think that such a comparison was intended, but I was put in mind of the overpowering presence of Wotan in Götterdämmerung. At any rate, Anderson’s portrayal of ‘everything – including Oedipus himself – gradually becoming part of nature and leaving civilisation altogether’ is impressively achieved. I had the sense that if the findings of the second and third acts had been read back into a revised version of the first, a tauter, more integrated, structure might well have emerged.

Edward Gardner seemed, insofar as it is possible to tell with a work one does not know, to conduct a splendidly authoritative performance, rhythms razor-sharp, layerings of colour ever-discernible. The ENO Orchestra deserves the strongest of plaudits in that respect too. Similarly the chorus, which plays an important role throughout, whether seen, as in the first two acts, or unseen, as in the third, its ambiguous offstage identity – does, for instance, Oedipus imagine the gods, or are they all-too-divine? – a clear dramatic advantage. Dominic Peckham’s choral training clearly paid off as well as Pierre Audi’s onstage blocking; there was a true sense of identity and credibility, both corporate and, especially in the first act, individual.

Audi’s staging does its job very well. There is a proper sense of place to each of the three acts, even if the jackbooted totalitarianism of Creon’s state arguably errs on the side of predictability. (Perhaps, though, that is the fault of the work as much as the staging.) Lighting from Jean Kalman sets off the relatively simple yet powerful work of the design team (Tom Pye’s sets and Christof Hetzer’s costumes) to excellent effect. Composer and librettist could hardly have asked for more for a premiere.

The cast acquitted itself with honour too. Despite having fallen victim to a throat infection, Roland Wood offered a tirelessly committed performance as Oedipus, his acquisition of wisdom genuinely affecting. Peter Hoare’s Creon was properly nasty, an excellent foil for the humanity of Julia Sporsén’s Antigone. (Here I could not help but think of Wagner’s analysis of the myth in Oper und Drama, Creon’s state falling victim to the anarchistic love-curse of this progenitor of Brünnhilde.) Susan Bickley’s Jocasta was as well sung and acted as expected, leaving one wishing that she had more to do. Christopher Ainslie, having previously appeared as the Messenger, truly came into his own as the third act Theseus, the purity of his counter-tenor voice as startling in its liminality as his bronzed appearance, the latter a clever stroke indeed from the production team. Matthew Best startled in quite very different way as a deep-voiced transsexual Tiresias: insistent, impatient, and defiantly ‘different’.

ENO, then, should be congratulated upon its efforts. With the best will in the world, it would be difficult to speak of this opera in the same breath as works by Benjamin or Birtwistle. By the same token, when one recalls in horror the latest offerings from Judith Weir and Mark-Anthony Turnage – whatever happened to the composer of the visceral Greek? – the contrast is equally apparent. A new work requires excellence in staging and performance. That it certainly received.

Mark Berry

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