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Friday, 9 May 2014

Thebans World Premiere at ENO


How nice it is to have expectations confounded. I admit to having had mild reservations about Julian Anderson's Thebans before I even entered the theatre. Oedipus or Orpheus or Elektra are all very well as opera subjects in the neoclassicism of the 18th century or the intellectual milieu of early 20th century Central Europe, with Freudian thought ascendant and musical neoclassicism just around the corner. But an essentially straight, grand opera treatment of one of the central Greek myths, in 2014 seems, on the face of it, like a precious, out of touch undertaking, self consciously 'operatic' and purposefully distant from the zeitgeist, perhaps even reactionary. The actual myths remain fascinating to us, so it's not the content that is in question; what is difficult is the style. A big part of this problem stems from producing a libretto - what language and what dramatic devices will allow the ancient myth to live and resonate in our time and not feel like a museum piece before it's had its first lease of life.

While in this particular production perhaps not every one of these concerns is answered, for the most part I found this to be a very enjoyable evening: the music making is excellent, the production simple, tasteful and effective, and the score has many moments of extraordinary splendour and beauty. Julian Anderson is not one of the big 'names' in contemporary music, at least not in the way that say Adès, Benjamin or Turnage are, but on the evidence of this showing, his skill in operatic writing puts him above many of his more famous peers. The libretto by Frank McGuinness is lucid and perhaps stolid, which naturally affects the drama. McGuinness's characters constantly narrate their own histories, the action often having occurred off stage at an earlier date. Very Wagnerian then. The drama is primarily psychological in nature, though McGuinness's language is far less lyrical-poetic than Wagner's, avoiding direct allusions to emotion or too much sensual description, and one doesn't sense Wagner's attachment to massive metaphysical ideologies. It certainly has a character - it feels objective and slightly unadventurous, despite the essentially modern syntax and occasional contemporary phrases.

Anderson's music is hard to pigeonhole or describe. The harmonic language is fundamentally atonal and certainly not easy listening, but modal implications are constantly being felt, and he is capable of producing very evocative, highly differentiated, and strongly characterised textures that keep one rooted in a time, place and character. This is in no small part down to his orchestration, which is always expert, and sometimes breathtaking. In scene after scene Anderson gives us something extraordinary - sometimes easy to discern as in Tiresias' amazing basso profundo arioso accompanied by piccolo and staccato woodwinds, or the tremolo woodblocks, accompanied by whispered sighs from orchestral instruments and the chorus, underpinned by double bass groans, which creates the forest atmosphere of the opening of Act III. But at other times the aural mass is impossible to analyse in terms of instrumentation, and in fact the instruments seem to melt away - a humid nimbus of sound is what one experiences.

The music throughout is imbued with a pliant lyricism, and though we don't get traditional arias or melodies as such, it recognisably draws on a thorough knowledge of the vocal tradition. In fact one gets the feeling that Anderson's knowledge is close to encyclopaedic and the list of influences one feels is enormous and highly eclectic - Dutilleux, Carter, Ligeti, Takemitsu, Feldman, Benjamin, all surface, and the bewildering density, yet lack of murkiness of the orchestral palette shows he has learned much from all of these. It always appears transfigured seamlessly into his own peculiar brand of unshowy orchestral splendour. Perhaps a weakness is the lack of memorability of the motivic material, and focus on local shapes and effects rather than large range, but the result is satisfying and never bores.

Pierre Audi's production is not set in a specific time period, instead merging elements of ancient dress with modern dress. The main set items are large mesh cages which contain stones, which are cleverly used to represent a crumbling empire in Act I, brutal solidity in Act II and the natural world in Act III. In the first act, entitled "Past: The Fall of Oedipus", we see the state of Oedipus' kingdom, his people swathed in white robes that look almost like bandages. This act contains the main meat of the Oedipus story that we are most familiar with. The stark, blue tinged cross lights give a chilly, alienated feel to proceedings, but Audi doesn't quite manage to build a convincing shape in the drama, and there are lots of places where characters seem to be stumbling around aimlessly just to use all the space. It feels a little cluttered. Act II, entitled "Future: Antigone", depicts Oedipus' daughter Antigone's obsession with her brothers burial, and the final tragedy of her demise at the hands of Creon, who has seized power after Oedipus' downfall. Under this new regime, everyone wears neat black garb, and the architecture of the old regime is very effectively reused and reinterpreted under the new one: decaying pillars have become glittering walls of a fortress, lit from within, with a warm golden light bathing the stage, giving a noble, imperial feel to Creon's empire. The music is neat, clean and propulsive, revealing the brutal regularity of Creon's rule, though his vocal lines betray a much more emotionally fickle character. The appearance of Antigone brings a stark remembrance of the past, instantly recalled by the cold cross light of Act I. Act III, entitled "Present: The Death of Oedipus", fits chronologically in between the other two acts and provides context and elaboration for the events that precede and follow it. Again, the direction had many characters merely stumbling about the stage, though the the music in the latter half of the act sweeps all before it - first Polynices' arresting monologue, then the undefinable sense of 'endings', a magnificently beautiful passage in which Oedipus is reunited with Antigone, then upward gliding orchestral scales, swirling tendrils of sound, as Oedipus heads to the light of his final rest, and then a dramatic outburst from Antigone who cannot accept that she can't follow him. The opera ends with a startling single unaccompanied note from Antigone.

Edward Gardner's direction is deft, leading the orchestra through this formidable music, allowing the superb orchestrations to resonate and impact with full force. Of course one cannot comment on accuracy without anything to compare it to, but the playing is committed and beautiful, and the effect can be mesmerising.

The cast is mostly very good. Roland Wood was announced as having a severe throat infection, and apparently had not sung at all for two weeks, but he performed admirably, and cut a compelling character on stage. Susan Bickley was as dependably good as she always is, her steely mezzo well suited to Jocasta's music, with its luscious string clusters and then more angular declamatory portions. Peter Hoare's tense, wiry Creon is the best defined character on stage and his journey from smiling politician to authoritarian ruler is pleasing to watch. Matthew Best relies a little too much on his fabulous fortune teller diva costume as Tiresias, but the effect is so strong, and his music so well characterised that the character is still compelling. Julia Sporsén revealed an attractive voice in the role of Antigone, but sounds overparted until act III, though she was perhaps saving herself. Still, I have a feeling that the role requires a bigger voice as it stands. Christopher Ainslee's Theseus, Messenger and Haemon show up the only real point of weakness in Anderson's scoring - these counter tenor roles all have too much instrumentation underpinning them and Ainslee struggled to be heard - the case is different from the one with Antigone, because counter tenor voices are never really very large decibels wise. Smaller roles are well taken by young singers - Jonathan McGovern as Polynices makes the most of the beautiful solo passage mentioned above.

All in all a very exciting new opera, that I can't wait to see again. It feels like it could withstand very wide ranging interpretation. I would love to listen to a recording of it also, and hope against hope that some sort of memento might be preserved of this world premiere performance.


  1. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Are you going to write about the Rosenkavalier excerpts?

  2. Yes. See here: