lietofinelondon

A Greek Chorus of Approval

In Classical Music, Opera, Review on May 4, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Review – Thebans (English National Opera, Saturday 3 May 2014)

The Chorus of English National Opera
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

Director- Pierre Audi
Set Designer – Tom Pye
Costume Designer – Christof Hetzer
Lighting Designer – Jean Kalman

The Orchestra of English National Opera

Frank McGuinness (Libretto)
Julian Anderson (Composer)

Edward Gardner (Conductor)

English National Opera is to be congratulated for their commitment to new works. They don’t always get it right – Nico Muhly’s Two Boys being a case in point – and they have yet to commission an opera that will stand the test of time.

And this is also true of Julian Anderson’s new opera, Thebans. Will it survive beyond a revival that ENO is almost beholden to schedule in the 2016/17 Season?

It’s not that Anderson’s opera isn’t impressive on many levels, gut-wrenching on at least one occasion or watchable throughout. It’s the fact that it ultimately lacks emotional substance or weight.

It’s difficult not to compare new works – even when they resemble each other so little. But compared to Written on Skin and even Anna Nicole, Anderson’s opera doesn’t ultimately leave me many questions except it is really an opera?

Anderson is an incredibly talented composer. Works such as his Alhambra Fantasy and The Discovery of Heaven – and more significantly – his Book of Hours demonstrate a lively and inquisitive use of rhythm and timbre.

But where I think Thebans falls short – as in some of his other works – is Anderson’s avoidance for the most part of motivic development. In smaller scale pieces that may work, but in the broader architecture of a three(ish) act opera it makes it more difficult to sustain any sense of architecture.

Ultimately therefore, Anderson’s Thebans isn’t an opera but rather a three movement tableaux – almost a vocal symphony – where only the narrative of the libretto binds it together.

And I say ‘three(ish)’ because three acts feels like an artistic indulgence when the second act is so short – yet so emotionally direct – and the final act lingers slightly too long.

I am also not convinced that basing the story on the chronology of when Sophocles wrote the plays – rather than when the events contained therein happened – works. There is some evidence that Antigone was written first – before even Oedipus the King – and he returned to the Oedipus legend at the end of his life not as an adieu to his ‘career’. Rather he wrote the episode at Colonus as a savage indictment of contemporary Athens and a warning of the political and artistic disaster that was about to engulf the city.

But there is no denying the power both of some of the music and the performances themselves. When I listen to Anderson I hear hints of Honegger, Britten, Bartok and even Stravinsky. And the same is true of Thebans.

Cleverly – or coincidentally – both McGuinness and Anderson recognized that as in Greek drama, the chorus is integral to the plot – commenting not only on the action but on the emotions as well.

So central to the success of this opera is the music that Anderson writes for the chorus. And he delivers music of magnificence and emotional weight that is the cornerstone of this work.

And as ever the chorus of English National Opera surpassed themselves, not only with the sheer power and beauty of the sound they produce, but also how they effortlessly intuit the emotional temperature on stage. From their opening chorus – beseeching Oedipus their King – to their condemnation of Creon, Thebans was their opera.

It is why I have listed the Chorus of English National Opera at the top of the characters. If this opera succeeds, it will do so for the strength of the choral writing and the chorus who perform it.

The chorus is almost certainly the main attraction. And the chorus’ ‘invisibility’ in the final act is this opera’s greatest flaw.

The music written for the main characters underlines how difficult it can be in modern opera to write vocal lines that convey any sense of emotion. But it is possible – Written on Skin for example. Even moments in Anna Nicole.

Here I picked up few moments when Anderson really got to the emotional heart of the characters through his vocal writing. For me there was the moment in the Third Act when Antigone and her brother Polynices sang “We are lost” and briefly in her ‘death song’ in the preceding act.

But it was the magnificent Susan Bickley who truly revealed the emotional content of her character, reveling not only in the music but finding a connection between what Anderson had written and who Jocasta was.

Roland Wood – despite illness – was very strong as Oedipus although his music failed to give him the traction he needed to develop his character. Similarly Peter Hoare’s Creon was too-often a character singing loudest although the unaccompanied opening of the Second Act was marvelous. Almost Britten-esque, in that moment Anderson’s writing exposed Creon’s character and isolation so simply.

Tiresias – resonantly sung by Matthew Best – was for me and after Jocasta, the most rounded character. I am not quite sure why he was dressed like Nina Simone – perhaps a reference to the Oracle in some oblique way – but the stentorian vocal line convinced of the character’s tragic gravitas.

Anthony Gregory and Christopher Ainslie both performed their dual roles eloquently. Gregory was particularly effective as Haemon and Ainslie’s countertenor was particularly suited to the off-worldly voice of Theseus.

For me, Antigone rather felt like a half-finished character. I wonted for more in Julia Sporsén’s ‘death song’ that was marred by a distracting vibrato and her singing in the final act – particularly as mentioned earlier – was precise rather than emotional. In fact in the closing moments I felt like I was watching a truncated characterisation of Strauss’ Salome/Elektra.

In terms of direction, Pierre Audi and his team supplied what was ultimately a ‘pack and go’ production destined as this is for Bonn.

While it didn’t lack a sense of scale, in many ways it was a very traditional vision of the tragedy.

There were no distracting gimmicks and no unpleasant surprises. In the first act I liked the way the lighting at the back of the stage was used when the gates were opened, and in the second the use of computer imagery to reveal Oedipus’ face was also smart without being intrusive. Perhaps in the final act, with its war-blasted trees, Audi could have been a little more audacious rather than having Oedipus just walk off stage considering the emotional coup Anderson and McGuiness were clearly aiming for.

And a word on the libretto. Frank McGuinness should write more of them. Not a word was wasted. Genius.

And in the pit, Gardner demonstrated that he is as comfortable in new music as he is in old. Under his baton the orchestra negotiated Anderson’s score with both enthusiasm and complete proficiency and there was never any loss of balance between the players and the singers.

So what next for Thebans?

A revival without a doubt. There’s no denying that it’s a bold and interesting work.

But it doesn’t feel like it has longevity. Not as an opera. But I have to admit that as I left the London Coliseum last night I did wonder if it would be more effective without staging – as an oratorio.

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  1. […] operas are vital if the art form is to survive. Most recently we had Julian Anderson’s flawed The Thebans, and before that Benjamin’s Written on Skin and Anna Nicole by […]

  2. […] a totally convincing Waltraute. Having seen her most recently as Eduige in Rodelinda and Jocasta in Thebans, she brought her vast experience to bear on this small, yet pivotal, role. For a moment I almost […]

  3. […] as in Thebans recently at English National Opera, it was the WNO Chorus who were the real triumph of the evening, […]

  4. […] terms of new works, I saw ROH’s Quartett and ENO’s Thebans. Luca Francesconi is, without doubt, a smart composer. Creating layers of sound, this opera can […]

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