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Wednesday 23 October 2013

Greek at ROH with Music Theatre Wales

Linbury Theatre

What an explosively fun evening! Turnage's 1988 opera Greek is a retelling of the story of Oedipus, updated to modern Britain. There's a real venom and young man's anger in it that places it squarely between punk and britpop, without pretension or populist posing - how often is a contemporary opera so genuinely vital and thrilling whilst really capturing something of the Zeitgeist? There are no direct references to the Thatcher era, so the humour hasn't dated, but the righteous anger and passion of that time cuts through every bar. As always with Turnage, Stravinsky is the touchstone in terms of compositional ancestry - the focus on rhythm, the secco orchestration and eschewal of sentimental content. There are virtually direct quotes from the Rite of Spring here too, and I also spotted Turnage's technique of using the rhythmic/gestural structure of another piece (as in his infamous "Single Ladies" Proms piece). The other comparison to be made is perhaps with Birtwistle - the furious violence and primitive energy that seems to appeal particularly in this country can usually be traced back to him in some way (again with its roots in Stravinsky and Varese). Ultimately this is very much Turnage's own piece though, consistently inventive and exciting, possibly the best I've heard of his. The vocal writing contains surprising moments of sustained lyrical beauty, particularly from Louise Winter's roles - she got several chances to sing a legato line, and revealed a very controlled voice, with particularly fine use of dynamics. Marcus Farnsworth was ill, so a singer was flown in from Berlin to sing the role (I missed the name), whilst the director Michael McCarthy acted the part and delivered all the spoken dialogue - an impressive feat from all that hardly detracted from the evening. The production is clearly done on a shoestring, but no less effective for that - it's a concert staging but is very immediate like the piece. I loved the punky start, opening with a scuffle with the ushers, and the way McCarthy ran offstage into the audience at the end, the piece having driven him mad. The final scene is shocking in the way the music all but stops as Eddy gouges his eyes own eyes out - extremely dramatic and tense theatre, and so simply achieved. As Eddy's parents (amongst other roles), Gwion Thomas and Sally Silver also sing very well and are clearly as dramatically committed to the whole enterprise as the others are. Conductor Michael Rafferty and Music Theatre Wales Ensemble do great things with the score, maintaining the brutal intensity throughout, with many moments of superb solo playing.

There's lots of bad language in the libretto, but unlike Turnage's more recent Anna Nicole, the point is never to shock or titillate: it's just the right language for the humour and the musical language. It did make me reflect for a moment on why this opera is so successful, when Anna Nicole is so limp and bloated - perhaps when he got to the big ROH stage and all the pomp that accompanied it, all he could do was take the piss? The later opera is of course the work of an artist a quarter of a century older; it seems that the reckless energy and wit that this early work exhibits was simply not maintainable across the decades. The key thing though is that the drama of Greek is driven by the music, which means it delivers precisely the thing that opera does best. I found myself constantly grinning at the humour, audacity and skill of it.

If you have any interest in modern opera, do yourself a favour and see this.

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