Old story lives again in new telling

picture of The diseased chorus

The diseased chorus, with, at front, Matthew Best as the Theban seer Tiresias. Pictures: Tristram Kenton

Thebans

English National Opera

London Coliseum

*****

RECENTLY I conducted a brief interview for the magazine Opera Now to establish views of the great and the good about which operas from the past half century – from the time of Britten onwards – would be likely to survive and make the mainstream repertoire.

There were plenty of obvious candidates, but also several less so: the Brussels premiere of Benoit Meunier’s Spring Awakening; Benedict Mason’s football opera Playing Away at Opera North; Laurent Petitgirard’s The Elephant Man; or at English National Opera, David Sawer’s From Morning to Midnight, an adaptation of Georg Kaiser’s Expressionist play, and Nico Muhly’s revolutionary internet-obsessed opera Two Boys.

Julian Anderson’s new opera Thebans, a treatment of the three Oedipus Plays what is loosely termed Sophocles’ Theban trilogy (in fact, Aeschylus’s Oresteia is Greek tragedy’s only genuine surviving trilogy), which has opened in Pierre Audi’s premiere production at ENO, is right up there with the best of them. I heard reservations expressed about its lack of overt tunes, perhaps even of Leitmotifs to characterise the main individuals – Oedipus, Creon, Antigone, the two boys Eteocles and Polynices - who form the essence of Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

But I thought I did hear something of the kind: there was plenty of logic to Anderson’s music, and oodles of character per se; if he eschews direct borrowing (though one melody owes some formal debt to Fauré), one can see he is an ardent admirer of Xenakis’ Oresteia, and much else in 20th Century operatic literature.picture of Roland Wood as the self-mutilated Oedipus

that ‘Our fathers fail us, and then we fail our fathers’, Anderson, who sketched a violin.

Anderson’s librettist for this Co-Production with Theater Bonn in Germany is Dublin-based Irish writer Frank McGuinness, who already has an adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus and Elektra to his credit. A good choice, therefore: someone who has delved into the bones of the Theban story and come up with gold. Someone with an almost feral appetite for the subject who is capable, as Anderson has it, of catching the animal taste and energy of a character. Someone with the gift of condensing 30-odd Attic Greek lines into half a dozen without losing any of their power.

Roland Wood as the self-mutilated Oedipus

While McGuinness observes concerto aged 12 and began the first steps towards this opera when studying Sophocles at school aged 16, notes interestingly that the opera explores the idea that Oedipus was a ‘bad father’; indeed in the (deliberately out of order) last section of the opera, based on the posthumously produced Oedipus at Colonus (401 B.C.), Polynices, his younger - though here in the opera, if I heard aright, elder - son, attacks and insults his blinded ex-father.

There is too much to admire in this score, and in the staging by the infinitely experienced Pierre Audi, to be able to catalogue here adequately.

Take first the massive vocal and physical presence of baritone Roland Wood – ENO’s recent Bunyan and Pilgrim in Vaughan Williams’s opera The Pilgrim’s Progress - as the self-blinding Oedipus: one can see why the plague-ridden chorus sprawling across the stage – it looks like a classic piece of David Pountney - reveres him, turns to him; and why latterly, when the truth of Laius’ death is exposed, they revile and turn against him. As the anguished semitones of the clustering chords well up, one hears the first utterances of clarinet – something of a signal character for Anderson, used to marvellous effect, time and again, in and out of the textures.   

All the chief characters wear white for Part I (Oedipus Rex), apart from the garishly turquoise Jocasta (Susan Bickley on Cassandra-like form). Ironic, amid a national infestation. For Antigone the strutting Creon (the stupendous tenor Peter Hoare, whose voice and characterisation alone would have made this worth hearing) and all the others wear black. The feeling is nasty: a modern dictatorship.

Here and throughout, the dramatic pacing by ENO’s Music Director Edward Gardner gave the opera tremendous impact. The scenes with the - albeit comically - cross-dressed Tiresias (the blind prophet famously elected to try out life as a woman – witness Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias) of Matthew Best, as fabulous in the deep bass register as Hoare is in the upper tenor; and both wonderful and terrifying (he later smugly revels in Oedipus’s discomfiture – the proof of his own rightness) in the measured adagio underlined by double bass, percussion and bass clarinet Anderson first allots him, are pithy and loaded: gradually the chorus’s loyalties shift from Oedipus, who they thought knew the answers, to the seer ‘who knows all’.

Here we see one of the other devices the composer focuses on for effect: repeated words: ‘The truth, the truth, the truth will be told’ booms Tiresias, and then the famous Sophocles line (or part of it), ‘You do not know who you are…’  (as of course Oedipus doesn’t, but is about to find out).

McGuinness does indeed get the key bits in: following a teasing little scherzo for Oedipus and Creon, as the latter limbers up to seize power; or the outrageous and doomed hubris of Bickley’s Jocasta: ‘So Apollo did not succeed….Nor is there a shred of truth in oracles…’, as if a Delphic prophecy can be overturned. 

A pirouette for oboe and cor anglais, then a scintillating little soprano solo from the chorus, then curious oriental twirlings Picture of Christopher Ainslie as Theseus peering through the gloomfrom the woodwind as Oedipus prises out the dread truth from the messenger and shepherd (who fatally exchanged him as a baby on Mount Cithaeron) and Jocasta’s suicidal shriek, ‘You are lost, lost. May you never know who you are,’ make this a sequence of breathtaking, edge-of-seat intensity.

Christopher Ainslie as Theseus peers through the gloom in Thebans Part 3

It is the announcement of the death of Jocasta which introduces one of the most riveting figures in all three parts of this opera – one might incline to say, in the entire trilogy: the countertenor. Here it is South African-born Christopher Ainslie, who brings a voice of ravishing quality and huge character and uneasy intensity.

We will meet him again, the harbinger of more dire news as the clouds gather around Creon in Antigone; and as a strange, unearthly Theseus in Oedipus at Colonus (constantly mispronounced: ‘This place is Collonus’: it’s Coloh-nus - the second ‘o’ is an omega), who becomes virtually Hermes psychopompos, the soul-guiding Mercury, at the end as he seems to conduct Oedipus (actually it’s Oedipus leading him) to his final transfiguration. Every time Ainslie sang, the temperature and the tension rose. The subtle riches Anderson prises from these triple roles are wondrously rewarding.

Matt Casey and baritone Jonathan McGovern as the soon-to-be-at-each-other’s-throat Eteocles and Polynices have a role in the final section – both revile their father – but scarcely sing in the first part. Instead, Audi deploys them around the stage, an eerie presence at different points. It became fun trying to guess where he would place them next. They are like small boys, students or apprentices, a kind of ‘see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil Leitmotif. Wide eyed. Deliberately spooky.

‘All that was sweet / is spoilt and gone’ sings McGuinness’s text, frequently soaring into its own non-Sophoclean (yet Sophocles-quality) poetry. At the bloody close of first play, the feeling is like the desolation of, if not Titus Andronicus, then King Lear.

Jean Kalman’s pinpoint lighting often speaks where the script does not – the final spot on an increasingly militaristic Creon, hinted at several times earlier, was classic. In ways it spoke louder than Tom Pye’s set: levels in the first part served fairly well, and more starkly so in part 2. Colonus looked like a strange, addled garden, plus a crumbling Stalingrad, peopled by – what? It supplied plenty of things for Wood’s Oedipus to stumble on – quite effective, arguably; but it was a teeny-weeny bit of a mess.

Antigone (the attenuated Part 2) opens with a strangely Britten-like monody. Creon calls the dead Polynices – Casey’s prostrate Eteocles is proudly displayed on a bier – ‘filth’: a term that interestingly Oedipus has used of himself at the end of the preceding part. It is clever the way Audi launches with Creon preening himself on a frontstage curule chair, only to replace himself with the interrogated Antigone on the same chair facing upstage.

Swedish soprano Julia Sporsén, machinating Livia in ENO’s equally nasty Caligula (Detlev Glanert’s opera), sounds superb in the lower ranges; with her, as elsewhere, one felt Anderson - like some of his late 20th C/early 21st C contemporaries - has carved a way back to post-Wagnerian German opera and come close to its sometimes atonal exponents – Franz Schreker, most obviously. Sporsén’s big lament, with cor anglais as a kind of obbligato, is haunting.

Tenor Anthony Gregory as Antigone’s espoused prince Haemon (Creon’s son) gets short shrift from his taunting, unyielding  father, who ‘believes in rough justice’, heralded by some rather fine Messiaen-like brass and Lutoslawskian clustering in the strings. The scene in this taut play is a classic. Indeed it’s the moments where Anderson slips into a two-part scena or duet that one wonders if more could, maybe should, have been made of ensembles.

However with the death of Creon’s niece, and of Haemon as well, Antigone turns into a kind of tragic, poignant pietà: ‘I took my life in my hands, picture of hristopher Ainslie as Theseus and Roland Wood as Oedipusand tore it to ribbons; too soon, too soon, too soon’. Might we even feel sorry for Creon?  

The impressive thing in the final part is the way, amid the débris, Wood preserves Oedipus’s dignity. He is, for all his denials, every bit a king. Again Anderson includes bass clarinet and very low woodwind, to mesmerising effect. This is perhaps even sadder than the despotic scenes of Antigone, as Oedipus curses both his own sons by Jocasta and dooms them to die by each other’s hand.

Christopher Ainslie as Theseus and Roland Wood as Oedipus in Part 3 of Thebans

Tom Pye comes up with a strange grey-yellow-greeny cyclorama, perhaps a light olive, or a green timbre Dulux rather ironically terms ‘Wellbeing’: as a background to desolation it is individualistic, rather original, and works rather well; it would serve equally in Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, for instance.

Does the drama of Part 3 work as well? Both composer and librettist were firmly agreed Oedipus at Colonus should be placed last, to the three stages could be ordered Past-Future-Present. I can recall other operas at ENO where the finale slightly loses puff: Humperdinck’s marvellous Königskinder is one; and Manon can come rather unstuck.

McGuinness reintroduces the young Antigone near the start and the close, Oedipus’s other guide, not disloyal like her ambitious brothers, and turns her into nearly a madwoman near the close, as if in anticipation of the horrors to come (the ‘Future’ we have witnessed in the brilliantly compacted Part 2); and to Sporsén he gives the final words of farewell.

The chorus sing the voices of the Gods near the end. They do a sterling job throughout, from plague-ridden to celestially sublime: Anderson’s writing for them is often gratifying, and Audi’s moving and blocking of them – surging like a starving wave towards Oedipus, then Jocasta, then Creon, is one of many visual masterstrokes: like an adagio in itself, replete with dramatic good sense, beguiling to eye and intellect alike. All of this is what makes the staging of Thebans, as well as the score -  which is what will surely last - a precious and durable find.

Runs at the London Coliseum to 03-06-14

Roderic Dunnett

10-05-14. 

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