Sunday 4 May 2014

First opera triumph - Julian Anderson's Thebans

Christopher Ainslie and Roland Wood - Thebans, act 3 - picture credit Tristan Kenton
Christopher Ainslie and Roland Wood
Thebans, act 3
picture credit Tristan Kenton
Julian Anderson and Frank McGuinness - Thebans: director Pierre Audi, conductor Edward Gardner: ENO at the London Coliseum
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 20 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Triumphant first outing for composer Julian Anderson's first opera

Julian Anderson's much anticipated first opera, Thebans, premiered at the London Coliseum on 3 May 2014, in a production by English National Opera. Anderson and his librettist, playwright Frank McGuinness, have compressed Sophocles' three Theban plays (Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) into a compactly dramatic two hour opera. Three plays means a lot of characters, and ENO fielded an impressively strong cast with Roland Wood as Oedipus, Peter Hoare as Creon, Matthew Best as Tiresias, Susan Bickley as Jocasta, Julia Sporsen as Antigone, Jonathan McGovern as Polynices, Matt Casey as Eteocles, Paul Sheehan as a Shepherd, and Christopher Ainslie and Anthony Gregory in multiple roles. The production was directed by Pierre Audi (making a very welcome return to the London stage), designed by Tom Pye, with costumes by Christof Hetzer, lighting by Jean Kalman and video designs by Lysander Ashton for 59 Productions. Edward Gardner conducted.

Sophocles three plays were not written as a trilogy, they were not even written in chronological order with Antigone the last play being written first. The middle play Oedipus at Colonus was written shortly before Sophocles' death and is full of conclusions and endings, so that Anderson and McGuinness chose to put this last, finishing the opera with the death of Oedipus. Not only did this make sense in terms of musico-dramatic structure, but operatically it was satisfying to finish with the death of the leading character.

Susan Bickley and Julia Sporsen - Thebans act 1 - Picture Credit Tristan Kenton
Susan Bickley and Julia Sporsen - Thebans act 1
Picture Credit Tristan Kenton
The plot is relatively straightforward. Act one: The Fall of Oedipus has Oedipus as King of Thebes with Jocasta as his wife, the city suffers from a plague and as a result of various messengers and oracles it is clear that Oedipus has murdered his own father and married his mother. Jocasta kills herself and Oedipus blinds himself. As with much Greek tragedy, really dramatic events often happen off stage and simply get narrated, wisely Pierre Audi in the production chose to follow this. Act two: Antigone takes place after the death of Oedipus. His two sons Polynices and Eteocles have fought over Thebes and both are dead. Jocasta's brother Creon has taken the throne and turned the city into a dictatorship. He decrees that Polynices, who attacked Thebes, not be given a burial. Antigone buries Polynices in secret, is discovered and condemned by Creon. She commits suicide as does Creon's son, Haemon who loves her. Act three: The Death of Oedipus has Oedipus (now blinded) and Antigone wander to a weird place called Colonus, a gateway to the under world. It is near Athens and whilst there Oedipus encounters both Theseus, King of Athens, Creon and Polynices. Both Creon and Polynices are come to beg Oedipus for help in their fight against each other at Thebes. He sends them away and finally goes to his death accompanied by Theseus, leaving Antigone alone. The ending is deliberately ambiguous, which is the way Anderson wanted it.

The opera is written for a normal sized symphony orchestra, but with the addition of bass and contrabass clarinets, cor anglais and percussion. This gives Anderson the normal sort of symphonic forces that he might have in a concert and as an experienced composer of orchestral music, Anderson's Thebans does have a wonderful symphonic sweep to it. In a sense each act could be seen as a symphonic poem with voices, and Anderson's trajectory not unlike that of Richard Strauss (though their writing styles are quite different). Anderson's writing for the orchestra included extended techniques and non-standard tunings at moments of stress. Throughout, the orchestra was a brilliant dramatic voice in the opera and an essential part of the drama. Anderson's music doesn't really do tunes, he is more interested in shapes and textures, with different characters and different dramatic situations generating changes to the fabric of the music. The result is highly effective and, used here, very very dramatic. It helped that he and McGuiness had kept the opera compact. A total of 2 hours of music, with act one the longest by far. (There were two intervals, but as Act 2 lasts only 20 minutes you feel that the work only needs one).

Matthew Best and Peter Hoare - Thebans, act 1 - picture credit Tristan Kenton
Matthew Best and Peter Hoare - Thebans, act 1
picture credit Tristan Kenton
Each act had its own texture and tint. The first act was coloured by the plague and the struggles of the characters to deal with it, the orchestral writing often very busy. The second was slower, more measured and the basic orchestral pulse was a steady crotchet tread reflecting Creon's fascist-like authoritarianism. The third act was all mysterious, with the extended techniques in the orchestra evoking natural sounds and suggesting electronics (though it was all acoustic). In terms of sheer technique, the piece is a tour de force.

Anderson has written vocal works before of course but is not well known as a vocal composer and it is in this area that we need to bear in mind the work was a first opera. Anderson's vocal writing is expressionist rather than melodic, with occasional quasi-lyrical moments. For much of the work, the word setting was conversationally syllabic with only occasional moments where Anderson used more operatic techniques. Some care had been given to make each of the major characters have a distinct texture to their part and this was highly effective with tenor Peter Hoare's shifty Creon, Antigone's athletic lyric soprano sung by Julia Sporsen and Susan Bickley's highly dramatic Jocasta. Where the writing was weakest was I think in the long stretches of dialogue for Roland Wood's Oedipus in act one, with the quite fast musical material turning into something of an unmemorable blur, albeit expressively sung by Roland Wood. Anderson had clearly been at some pains here to ensure the words were heard, which they were, but at a cost to the memorability of the musical material.

Thebans act 1 - picture credit Tristan Kenton
Thebans act 1 - picture credit Tristan Kenton
The great moments were stunningly dramatic, particularly for the way that Anderson harnesses both orchestra and voice in a single dramatic continuum. Many of Jocasta's pronouncements were memorable (as a character she tended to pronounce rather than discuss), and in Oedipus's two big moments in act one Anderson allowed the vocal line to expand with very positive results. But it wasn't just the major characters, Anderson gave characters such as the Messenger in act one, finely dramatic and well structured moments. Antigone got the glory in both act two and act three, with here final death song in act two being memorable and of course it is Antigone who finishes the opera, all alone.

Director Pierre Audi's brand of intelligent modernism is one we don't see too much of in London. This was a wonderfully dramatic, well thought-through production; there were classical references and fascist ones but it essentially created its own world . The basic set was based on blocks of stones contained in wire (of the type often used in breakwaters etc), which could be moved in a flexible way. Against and across these where projected video images and some stunning lighting. This gave each location a clear setting, with act one being the most open, light and with some classical Greek references in the costumes (and Jocasta's vivid rich turquoise dress the only splash of colour). Act two was darker, militaristic (with fascist hints), black costumes and all darkness with a lovely effect of the stones being lit from inside, seeming to glow. The final act was very much a weird and blasted heath (though perhaps with too many dead trees), the visuals matching the sound-world of the piece perfectly.

Thebans act 2 - picture credit Tristan Kenton
Thebans act 2 - picture credit Tristan Kenton
All the singers were exemplary, particularly in the way they took the music and used it dramatically so that much of the performance felt like well-established drama rather than a new work. And a surprisingly amount of text was audible, which is all credit to the singers, to Anderson and to Gardner and the orchestra especially in a work which was not noticeable quiet.

Roland Wood, who played Oedipus, had been ill and had not sung for two weeks, so we were very lucky that he was singing at all; perhaps there was some loss of power in his voice but he gave a consummate performance and a brilliantly dramatic one as he made the journey from intelligent ruler, to blinded pariah and finally to the strangeness of Oedipus just before death. Jocasta is a relatively short part, but oh boy did Susan Bickley make it tell. Always a highly dramatic performer, she was here on strong form. Though inevitably something of a bitch-goddess, Bickley also made Jocasta conflicted and tortured and her final curse was thrilling stuff.

Peter Hoare's Creon was masterly; crafty and self-serving but never completely base in act one with music to suit. Then in act two his amazing militaristic persona, which in retrospect came as a completely logical development from act one. Antigone was, I think, a slightly under-written character. She has nothing memorable in act one, and in act two we really only know her in death, though act three is a more extended exploration of her relationship with her father. Julia Sporsen brought surprisingly power to Anderson's athletic lines and I thought hinted at interesting directions her voice might take. She was moving both in death (act two) and on the death of her father (act three).

The other major character, who occurs in acts one and two, is the blind, bi-gendered seer Tiresias. Here the costume reflected Tiresias's bi-gendered nature and Matthew Best was dressed in an outfit really worthy of Bette Bourne (in fact, the whole role was). Dark of voice, and accompanied by a contrabass clarinet, Best was enigmatically brilliant in the role and played the mysterious and exotic outsider to perfection.

Anthony Gregory was brilliant in his three different roles, a stranger from Corinth in act one, Haemon (son of Creon) in act two and a stranger in act three. Each different, and each precisely characterised and rather well sung particularly the lyrical moments in act one. Christopher Ainslie was similarly three different outsider figures, with Anderson exploiting his otherworldly voice to great effect. Ainslie is the Messenger in act one, who thinks he brings good news but in fact confirms Oedipus's sin and this solo was one of the work's memorable moments. He was a messenger again in act two, and a wonderfully strange King Theseus in act three (complete with a very well developed naked torso). Paul Sheehan was the old shepherd in act one, a small but important part, highly characterfully performed. A singer, Jonathan McGovern, and an actor, Matt Casey, played Oedipus's sons. McGovern was present in all three acts (albeit dead in the second), but got his only real solo in act three. This a highly dramatic dialogue with his father which made clear their terrible relationship.

From the start in act one, the chorus gave the music its particular colour with an opening chorus of sighs and groans. Anderson's writing for chorus was highly characterful whether it was the Thebans dying of plague, or the Thebans being militaristic under Creon. In act three the chorus is all off stage, making the drama a little ambivalent. We are unclear whether Oedipus is in fact hearing them in his head. The ENO Chorus (chorus master Dominic Peckham) clearly relished playing a large role, throughout their performance was exemplary, very expressive and very dramatic.

But ultimately Anderson's conception of opera is Wagnerian (or post-Wagnerian) in that the orchestra is as important (if not more so) than the singers and it was the ENO Orchestra under Edward Gardner who were in thrilling form. Anderson's orchestral writing, with its extended techniques and non-standard tunings, might be masterly but it is also tricky. Here the orchestra shone and produced page after page of luminously dramatic music. At the opening of act three, you really could believe that electronics were involved. Gardner controlled everything in a poised and relaxed manner, yet full of control; just the right balance of opposites to allow the work to breathe.

I think Anderson should risk lengthening act one a small amount in order to let the music breathe more, with Oedipus's part in particular getting more moments of pause. It would be highly beneficial for the musico-dramatic flow. And the ending, though evocative and deliberately ambiguous, seemed somehow a little too downbeat, even under-powered. But these are relatively small points and for a first opera, this work is a triumph and I would hope it will have a life well beyond this opening production (shared with Theater Bonn).

Thanks to Pierre Audi's production, Anderson, Gardner and the ENO company have created a grippingly dramatic evening in the theatre which just happens to be an opera, and where the music is central to the drama. There are 7 performances in all at the London Coliseum until 3 June 2014. See it!

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