Thebans, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, May 2014Posted on 4 May 2014
For his first opera, composer Julian Anderson demonstrates huge chutzpah in combining Sophocles’ three Theban plays (Oedipus the King/ Oedipus at Colonus/ Antigone) into a single evening of opera. The plays were not written in the chronological order of their events, and nor does Anderson take them in that order, ending with Colonus, written shortly before the author’s death in 406 BC.
His decision is well rewarded by the stunning effect of Pierre Audi’s production blessed with excellent set designs by Tom Pye and wonderful lighting by Jean Kalman particularly in Act II (Antigone) where a golden light occasionally shines through the walls, contrasting with the dark fascism of the city now ruled by Creon. Costumes by Christof Hetzer reflect stark differences in attitude by the choice of colours, and it will be interesting to see how this co-production with Theater Bonn will be received in Germany. Very well indeed I would hope since German directors sometimes dwell on Nazi themes inappropriate to the music, while here we have a seriously classical theme with fascist aspects, benefiting from a production that really suits the music.
Julian Anderson’s eclectic music contains mysterious sounds, and noises of nature in the early part of Act III that reflect the sacred grove at Colonus. Yet it exudes real power in harmonies that reach climactic strength, for example when Oedipus grapples with his son Polynices. This is a composer who can get to grips with the power of human emotions, so well expressed by Sophocles, and brought to a modern English rendering by Frank McGuinness.
Having recently heard some rather pedestrian conducting of an opera by one of the world’s greatest composers, it was a huge pleasure to hear this new opera by a relatively unknown musician conducted in such thrilling fashion by Edward Gardner. The English National Opera have outdone themselves by assembling such a wonderful team to bring this to stage, and not least of course the singers themselves.
As Oedipus, Roland Wood gave a riveting performance despite not having sung for two weeks owing to a “severe throat infection”, and Peter Hoare was a malevolently potent Creon, vocally forceful and with excellent diction.
With singers of the quality of Matthew Best in the bass role of a bi-gendered Tiresias, Susan Bickley as the one splash of Act I colour as Jocasta, and Julia Sporsén as the selfless Antigone, this excellent cast was complemented very well in more minor roles: Anthony Gregory gave a strong message from Corinth bringing what he thinks are good tidings, Paul Sheehan a suitably dramatic rendering of his reluctant evidence as the shepherd who once carried the wounded baby to safety, and counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie a fine performance of Theseus, King of Athens, whose bronzed godlike body carried an otherworldly aspect.
By putting all three plays together in a modern unified whole, Frank McGuinness’s libretto is a marvellous accomplishment, and Julian Anderson’s music fully satisfies the boldness of his vision. That so many musical subtleties are reflected in the production makes this a team effort worthy of a great opera house. Must see.
Performances continue until June 3 — for details click here.