More woe for Oedipus

Thebans, a new ENO opera by Frank McGuinness and Julian Anderson, is short on conviction – and interest

10 May 2014

9:00 AM

10 May 2014

9:00 AM


English National Opera, in rep until 3 June

I had high hopes for Julian Anderson’s first opera, Thebans. Premièred at the Coliseum last Saturday, it promised to mark a departure from the trendiness of ENO’s recent commissions, Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, for example, or the dreadful Sunken Garden — in fact, ENO’s next season seems to reflect a company at last a little less enamoured of innovation for its own sake. Thebans, the advance publicity suggested, was to be a serious, grown-up work, closer in spirit, perhaps, to Detlev Glanert’s Caligula, of which ENO gave the UK première two years ago.

The company had put a lot of faith in Anderson, currently composer-in-residence at Wigmore Hall and a master of orchestral colour and texture. But he’d been mulling over an opera based on Sophocles’ three Theban Plays for a couple of decades, we were told, and was collaborating on the piece with Frank McGuinness, who has already produced a couple of Sophocles adaptations for the theatre (and who, amusingly, his biography in ENO’s programme also claims ‘is currently working on an opera cycle on the Oedipus Trilogy for ROH’). Given their long relationships with the material, then, it seemed all the more disappointing in the event that, for all the skill they showed, neither man seemed to have very much to say about it. They had apparently striven for ambiguity, to avoid ‘clear answers or simple characters’, but the result felt straightforwardly evasive and short on conviction.

Julian Anderson and Frank McGuinness in Thebans Photo: Tristram Kenton

For a start, McGuinness’s text, although an impressive feat of distillation, is more a précis than an adaptation, in which dogged concern for ploughing through the action precludes any opportunity for lyrical reflection or psychological development — in short, any opportunity for the things that I’d have thought would make it worth producing as an opera in the first place. And shouldn’t someone (ENO artistic director John Berry, perhaps) have raised questions at the very earliest stages about the wisdom of trying to telescope Sophocles’ three plays (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone) into a single opera with a projected running length, with two intervals, of just two and a quarter hours? (In the event, with intervals running over, the evening lasted nearer three.)

Matters weren’t helped by the decision to present the action in non-chronological order — the acts were designated ‘Past: The Fall of Oedipus’; ‘Future: Antigone’; ‘Present: ‘The Death of Oedipus’. As far as it went, the central act was an effective and chilling evocation of totalitarianism (complete with off-the-peg fascist costumes). But, rattled through in not much more than 20 minutes, it became an interlude, telling us nothing about its title character and only undermining narrative continuity between the outer acts.

On its own terms, Anderson’s music was often brilliantly kaleidoscopic, as well as admirably clean-textured. The earthy thuds and spectral choral writing with which the evening began were encouraging, and there was no denying the effectiveness of the scene-setting at the start of Act 3, with its uncanny rattling percussion. The final revelation of Oedipus’ identity in Act 1 was effective, too, with the Shepherd (Paul Sheehan making a strong impression) resorting to speech against a wordless chorus. But then all dramatic power seeped away when the gruesome details of Jocasta’s death were announced by a weak-voiced countertenor Messenger (Christopher Ainslie, also Theseus in Act 3).

ENO Thebans - Christopher Ainslie 2 (c) Tristram Kenton
Christopher Ainslie Photo: Tristram Kenton

Anderson’s writing for the voices favours one-size-fits-all modernist arioso, which conveys character largely through degrees of jaggedness (the marvellous Susan Bickley had to jump around all over the place as Jocasta) or rhythmic profile (unflinching and forceful in the case of the nasty, officious Creon, expertly sung by Peter Hoare). But it falls woefully short in fleshing out the character of Oedipus, whose own final speech — with the chorus here piped through speakers — was painfully uninvolving, while, in terms of basic direction, Creon’s attempted abduction of Antigone preceding it was embarrassingly botched. After this, Antigone’s striking final moments, though sung with passionate abandon by Julia Sporsén, were never going to count for much.

Pierre Audi’s production was a stylishly timeless affair, with Tom Pye’s designs making use of large rectangular rock cages in various configurations, lit beautifully by Jean Kalman. This was also an outstanding ensemble effort, with cast, chorus and orchestra galvanised under Edward Gardner, who conducted with unflinching conviction. The large cast showed the company at its best, with the young tenor Anthony Gregory making a strong impression in his three roles and Matthew Best bellowing away powerfully as a cross-dressing Tiresias. At the centre of it all, Roland Wood (singing through a throat infection) fought nobly and manfully to make us care about his fate. That neither he, nor for that matter anyone, succeeded in that aim is a powerful indictment of the piece itself.

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