‘Thebans’ by Julian Anderson. World Premiere, 3rd May 2014, English National Opera at the Coliseum
Disputed parentage, familial in-fighting, incest, the wisdom of elders ignored, political machinations, and a crowd baying for action..….. Not an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, but Ancient Greece: Sophocles’ three Theban plays translated into opera by British composer Julian Anderson and Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. Those familiar with the story of Oedipus Rex know that it can only end badly for ill deeds must be atoned and the gods will have their retribution.
Three full-length plays by Sophocles are telescoped into three acts to create an opera lasting around 100 minutes. The narrative is not chronological, with the middle act moving us forward to ‘Future’ and the death of Antigone. The final act, set in a shattered landscape of bare, blasted trees, pierced by thunder and lightning, plays out the Death of Oedipus, who blinded and frail, finally finds peace in death. This final play, ‘Colonus’, was written shortly before Sophocles’ death in 406 BC.
A chronological telling of the story may have made the action more comprehensible, but composer and librettist wanted to create a drama which comments on the main themes of the narrative – human frailty and desperate acts – rather than simply “telling it as it is”. Thus the final act, in which Oedipus appeals to the good nature of the curiously homo-erotic Theseus, a bare-chested golden young King, beautifully, eerily portrayed by counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie, has an air of meditation, resignation and completion. It is Oedipus’ daughter, Antigone, who has the final word. Heart-wrenchingly sung by Julia Sporsen, the action closes on her crying out in the wilderness, with no hope of consolation. It is a bleak end to a savage tale.
All is not well in Thebes as the curtain rises on a brutalist scene of Act 1, created by towers of gabions (wire crates filled with rocks) and shadowy lighting. The crowd lie around the stage, cowed by the terrible plague that has infected the city, imploring Oedipus to save Thebes. An air of foreboding pervades the whole scene, enhanced by the chorus’s hissing sibilants and low murmurations. Indeed, throughout the opera, Julian Anderson’s chorus writing is excellent: menacing and accusatory in Act 1, bossy and fascist in Act II, and haunting and disembodied (sung offstage) in the final act.
The sparse, largely monochrome setting suits Anderson’s music. Sparely scored, it is the haunting, airy winds and crackling percussion which offer most musical impact, together with Frank McGuinness’ earthily poetic libretto. Oedipus, sung with warmth by Roland Wood (apparently suffering from a throat infection, but with no discernible difficulty in his delivery), is flawed and doubting, beset by anger. Creon (Peter Hoare) is mercurial, self-serving, always the politician, his smooth tenor voice perfectly matching his protean personality. Susan Bickley, the one element of colour as Jocasta in turquoise draperies, is at first hectoring, refuting the claims of the strangely androgynous Tiresias, and later panic-stricken and despairing. Much of the solo writing seems closer to recitative rather than aria, and this lends a greater sense of the key players commenting on their, and others’, actions, motives and emotions. Overall, the opera has an air of meditation, encouraging the observer to cogitate on the themes and symbols presented within the drama, rather than actively embrace them. The quality of singing, production, lighting and direction combine to create an opera which is engaging and convincing, yet strangely distant. Worthy, and worth seeing.