Tom Sutcliffe on a new operatic version of three plays by Sophocles
English National Opera have not done many world premieres of operas at the vast London Coliseum. The last I recall was Gerald Barry’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in 2005, based on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s lesbian film. The staging was a Richard Jones special and not popular with the public and this precipitated a palace revolution at ENO installing the current boss John Berry in the top job. So Berry is to be congratulated for commissioning and presenting Thebans as what he calls in its programme ‘a core strand’ of ENO’s work. Just as ‘Gospel’ means good news, so opera (invented around the year of Our Lord 1600 in a revival of a supposedly pre-Christian form of musical theatre) always until the era of plinky-plonk modernist music traded in novelty. Newness was the biggest selling-point of any operatic season.
A suspicious public
Today of course both opera companies and the Church have come to rely on the old, tried and trusted — old buildings, old pictures, old words, old comforters. The opera public is even more suspicious than the religious public of new stories, new music, newfangling. Thebans sounds like an old story and in fact was three: Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonnus and Antigone. The composer Julian Anderson picked old tales for his opera — the first of which was used not long ago by Mark-Antony Turnage for a successful short punk opera called Greek. Anderson, who must have been playing safe in this choice, mistakenly explained himself in the ENO programme: felt all these characters needed to sing… so rich and ambiguous that they cry out for music to express themselves fully. He also stated that his librettist Frank McGuinness’s text provided a wonderful new twist by distilling three stories into three acts of one opera which the composer added he ‘very much enjoyed’ setting to music.
Too great a challenge
Never explain, never apologise is a good rule for the artist. Actually Thebans was a first opera by a very decent, admired and skilful academic composer who is a theatre virgin and not much known for song. With successful operas it is always the composer who calls the shots. If the text is not good enough or focused wrong, if it shows misjudgments about taste and style, blame the composer with whom the buck stops. Of course collaborations (Strauss and Hoffmannsthal, Mozart and Da Ponte, Handel and Haym, Verdi and Piave, Stravinsky and Auden, yes even Richard Wagner and himself!) generate mutual respect. But Anderson gives the game away when he talks about ‘setting the text’. A church composer sets holy texts whose function is definitive.
Anderson mostly failed to achieve what he must have wanted: in no way was the experience viscerally musical. Antigone in the middle act was a mere shadow of her profoundly stubborn and unforgettably argued ancient Athenian self — ready to die for a vital anciently perceived principle about the dignity of death. John Berry should have said thank you but no thanks to Anderson — and instead performed Georges Enescu’s Romanian/French masterpiece Oedipe which does everything Anderson failed to do. But it is no shame if the challenge of opera first time round is too much for a gifted artist. Standards slipped during the twentieth century. But nowadays we put up with a lot less than the best of Richard Strauss, or Janacek, or Britten, or Henze, or Prokofiev, or Berg.
Popular English theatrical taste even in Purcell’s day (1680–95) was commercial. That is why his semi-operas such as The Indian Queen (currently in the rep at the Basel opera) are always in the German world adapted to make them relevant to modern life. Working with Dryden as poetic dramatist, Purcell, however brilliantly inventive and enjoyably his music, was in no position to dictate the overall product — which is why semi-opera is never as operatically effective as his miniature miraculous Dido and Aeneas.
Joachim Schloemer as director and also writer of new dialogues for Basel has conjured up a modern naive tourists shockingly horrific jungle adventure in South America. But his Germanic English and close-up video ‘interview’ with the victim do not appeal — though it is a pleasure that this version adds so many fine numbers from Purcell’s Diocletian and Ode for St Cecilia. A Swedish singer Anders J. Dahlin was Acacis, son of the Indian Queen Zempoalla, with a timbre just like a perfect English lyric tenor, fine diction and beguiling musicality. Bass baritone Marc Labonnette from Paris was a sacrificing shaman in a bear suit. A Finnish tenor Markus Nykanen in gold baroque make-up portrayed the sun-god. The central role of Orazia was given to three performers — a singer, an actor and a dancer.
The La Cetra orchestra was beautifully conducted by English conductor David Cowan who has long been with Theater Basel. The set design by Jens Kilian showed a world upside down (for reasons unclear) with people walking literally upside down on the ceiling supp orted by a rail mechanism that carried them around: a weird, wonderful and no doubt extravagant fantasy. Purcell’s semi-opera may seem hopelessly silly, but he and Dryden succeeded in the theatre of the time, and if Harry Potter can be taken seriously, why not The Indian Queen?