How do you solve a problem like Antigone? For one thing, you don’t stray so far from this extraordinary play by Sophocles that her impassioned self-sacrifice in the upholding of what is right in the eyes of Heaven is relegated to a dialogue in which Creon dismisses her as a misguided feminist. Nor do you transpose her glorious death with that of her father-cum-brother, allowing him, guilty of both incest and patricide, some semblance of redemption whilst she is dismissed as a mere suicidal teenager, disproportionately upset because she can’t marry Creon’s son.
The composer Julian Anderson and his librettist Frank McGuiness have rather bitten off more than they can chew in trying to shoehorn Sophocles’ Theban plays into a mere three acts. As one of my fellow critics wrote, it is not often you feel moved to complain that a contemporary opera isn’t long enough. Having studied these plays and grown to love them at both school and university, I felt short-changed by this treatment of Sophocles, just as Shakespearean scholars must do when attending a performance by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. In this case, a more authoritative editor would surely have suggested that there was more than enough material in Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus to create a full evening’s opera with two acts of about an hour’s duration each, containing the composer’s most effective music.
It is hard to go to a modern opera based on Greek tragedy without making comparisons with both Tippett and Birtwistle. Birtwistle it was not, mainly because Sir Harry has a unique way of writing for voices that works perfectly against his backdrop of orchestral writing. In Thebans, rather as in Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune, the solo vocal writing doesn’t have the same power to move as does the composer’s superb use of instrumental colour. Even in the most “Modernist” of operatic writing, I have come to expect either beauty of line or a sense that the characters’ emotions are distilled in every telling phrase. Mr McGuiness’ libretto was admirably laconic, if a little colloquial at times (e.g. “done and dusted.”) Sadly, the combination of this choppy style with Mr Anderson’s stark vocal setting had the undesired effect of holding the audience at arm’s length, incapable of engaging with the characters on the stage before us. I wasn’t bored because the orchestral writing was highly inventive; but to me the power of Greek drama lies in the possibility of catharsis. To experience catharsis you have to be able to identify with the protagonists on some level. No amount of clever writing for cor anglais at a higher than normal pitch or the use of a contrabass clarinet to great effect could compensate for this loss. This was an effective opera rather than an affective one.
It is always going to be difficult to portray the story of Oedipus as an everyday human tragedy. So much of what happens to him is beyond human understanding. At the end of the first play he blinds himself as a form of redress for his hubris. By the time he has reached the sacred grove outside Athens (Colonus) he argues that he is not responsible for his crimes and that his choice of burial site can bring peace and prosperity to the local city state, provided due deference in the form of libations is accorded to the gods. This play was not as harshly treated by Anderson/McGuiness as was Antigone. However, there was an attempt to compress its content so it was expressed as drama rather than philosophical contemplation. What jarred most of all, possibly in a nod towards Wagnerian epic, was the introduction of a Christian notion of personal redemption.
In the past, operatic commissions have foundered because they lack dramatic pacing. Thebans, or perhaps more accurately what is left of Sophocles’ Theban plays when you have taken the shears to them, is admirably fast-paced and packed with incident. Mr Anderson uses his chorus like a conventional operatic chorus rather than as the Ancient Greek dramatic device of narrator. He writes superbly for choir, so much so that I can imagine the choral pieces having a life of their own, rather in the manner of John Adams’ choruses in Nixon in China. That in itself is impressive, as not many current composers can write as imaginatively and as effectively for choir as they do for orchestra. In the first act he employs chord clusters to great effect. In the third act the offstage chorus are suitably ethereal, painting the scene for this C. S. Lewis-like “wood between the worlds.”
It is common 21st century practice to cut the recitative in opera seria in order to reduce the duration to under three hours. Authentic performance without cuts is infinitely preferable because the drama is conveyed through the recitative which is then articulated by the arias which express a character’s emotional response to a situation. With hindsight, it is as if Mr Anderson originally wrote a five-hour opera and retrospectively cut out all the da capo arias, leaving nothing but recitative for his soloists to sing.
The production by Pierre Audi doesn’t add a lot to the opera, but neither does it obfuscate. Acts I and III are set largely in Greek costume, with the odd anachronistic addition of flying goggles and white suits for Oedipus and Creon. Act II feels totally out of place musically and dramatically, so I wasn’t unduly surprised to see the action transported to some 1930’s totalitarian state in a cabinet room with strangely non-matching chairs. Antigone gets marched up and down stairs a bit and manages to knock a chair over. Creon has borrowed the late Colonel Gaddaffi’s uniform, minus the turban. Set designer Tom Pye and costume designer Christof Hetzer excel themselves in Act III. Instead of a secluded grove where nymphs gambol, the poor singers have to try and negotiate fallen logs on a blasted heath whilst wearing oversized prison blankets as makeshift cloaks. Polynices tries out a spot of slow-mo Greek wrestling without his sheet falling off, then on comes poor old Christopher Ainslie, wearing a skirt and helmet and looking as if he has been dipped in gold paint. Ours not to reason why.
The orchestra under Edward Gardner’s baton played wonderfully throughout. I particularly enjoyed the “toy orchestra” of piccolos, glockenspiel and toy drum which accompanied the hardworking Mr Ainslie in Act I. Susan Bickley was a very fine Jocasta before spending about twenty minutes playing dead in Act I whilst the redoubtable Mr Ainslie was really made to earn his fee by playing a significant role in all three acts.
For me the outstanding vocal performance of the evening, (notwithstanding the vocal writing,) was given by Matthew Best as Tiresias. What a glorious bass voice, especially lower in the range, weaving mysteriously in counterpoint with the contra-bass clarinet. He cut a menacing transgender figure, reminiscent of Stanley Baxter in drag, using every movement with his gnarled sticks to convey foreboding. Roland Wood as Oedipus had been unable to use his voice for two weeks prior to the premiere due to illness, but thankfully was able to perform on the night and only once or twice lost power when in competition with soaring brass. He didn’t have any heart-rending vocal lines to sing, but he seethed throughout the performance, lurching fitfully between arrogance and suffering. As John Berry (artistic director of ENO) said in his opening announcement, Mr Wood has created the role of Oedipus. In the context of this production, he delivered everything that was asked of him, and more.
Peter Hoare is a reliable English character tenor who got much of the best music in this opera. (The Devil does tend to get all the best tunes.) In Sophocles, Creon’s hubris is greater than that of Oedipus, who of course didn’t knowingly kill his father and sleep with his mother. At the end of Act II, I almost felt a modicum of sympathy for Creon when he discovered his hubris had led directly to the death of his son, but he reappeared in Act III, still full of bile over the behaviour of his in-laws, having learned nothing. As Act II was inexplicably all about Creon and very little about one of the greatest heroines in drama, I didn’t get much of an impression of Julia Sporsén’s singing on this occasion, which was a disappointment as I very much enjoyed her in Julietta. Antigone’s loss was Haemon’s gain. I thought the current ENO Harewood Artist Anthony Gregory acquitted himself extremely well, making a moving portrayal out of his few moments as Haemon.
I went to Thebans expecting to be impressed by the quality of the music and moved by the drama. In the event I was impressed but remained unmoved. It was unjust that Mr Anderson has received less media attention than his contemporary and fellow Faber composer, Thomas Adès. Compositionally, this fine composer has not put a foot wrong in his first opera. I think Thebans deserves further outings and I fully expect I shall grow to appreciate it more on second and third hearing, just as I did with George Benjamin’s first opera Into the little hill, a mere hors d’oeuvre before the stunning Written on skin. On that basis we should all eagerly await Mr Anderson’s second foray into the realm of opera
(Photos: Tristram Kenton via ENO website)