by Julian Anderson libretto by Frank McGuinness.
London Coliseum St Martin’s Lane WC2N 4ES In rep to 3 June 2014.
7.30pm 8, 10, 23 May, 3 June.
6.30pm 17, 31 May.
BSL Signed 8 May.
Pre-performance Talk (Balcony Bar) 8 May 6.15pm.
Runs 2hr 45min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7845 9300.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 3 May.
Finely-played and sung ENO premiere of aurally and dramatically adventurous new opera.
Who are these Thebans? Greek tragedian Sophocles’ usual suspects; Oedipus, seeing his city-state sicken before him and discovering, through layers of temper, he is the cause. His brother Creon, traditionally the practical, ruthless ruler placing political pragmatism before humane judgement. And Antigone, Oedipus’ daughter – either loyal humanitarian or self-destructive idealist.
Then there are the unnamed citizens caught by a plague not of their making, but a divine judgment of unwitting human behaviour. In secular terms, victims of forces beyond their control. Thebes is a divided city, within a fragmented country, no surprise from Frak McGuinness, born on the fault-line between two Irelands.
More surprising, and essential to Thebans’ impact, is a structure that places the well-known events of Sophocles’ King Oedipus in the past, then moves to the future with the familiar Antigone before ending-up back in the present with Oedipus’ death in the least well-known of Sophocles source-plays, Oedipus at Colonus. Yet this structure creates distinct, cumulatively impressive, sound worlds in Julian Anderson’s score.
And the complexity and agony reflected in the compressed account of King Oedipus (Sophocles’ untangling of past events has to be mangled, but the impact remains forceful) is reflected by the stone monumentalism of Tom Pye’s set.
Pye distances the grandeur in the more vocally lyrical, highly compressed, Antigone act, before reaching the summation of his grey tones in the struggle around Oedipus’ death at Colonus. Antigone tells her blind father this entry to the underworld is lush and green, but it has the bare trunks and branches of a Paul Nash Great War landscape.
With this, and Anderson’s sound colourings, McGuinness’s repeated references to “filth” can seem generalised. But he shapes the story around harshness and deceit – Creon denies he’s mocking Oedipus, having just mimicked his brother’s awkward walking on crutches – reflecting, in Pierre Audi’s detailed production, the initially confident Oedipus’ taking the stick on which blind prophet Tiresias relied.
Anderson’s wide-ranging sound-palette leads movingly to two sudden, quiet act endings, starkly contrasted by the vocal display with which Antigone concludes the final act, a cry of desperation in a cold, hard world.
Oedipus: Roland Wood.
Creon: Peter Hoare.
Tiresias: Matthew Best.
Jocasta: Susan Bickley.
Stranger from Corinth/Haemon/Stranger: Anthony Gregory.
Shepherd: Paul Sheehan.
Antigone: Julia Sporsén.
Polynices: Jonathan McGovern.
Eteocles: Matt Casey.
Messenger/Theseus: Christopher Ainslie.
English National Opera Chorus and Orchestra.
Director: Pierre Audi.
Conductor: Edward Gardner.
Designer: Tom Pye.
Lighting: Jean Calman.
Video: Lysander Ashton for 59 Productions.
Costume: Christof Hetzer.
Chorus Master: Dominic Peckham.
Orchestra Leader: Janice Graham.
Assistant conductor: Toby Purser.
Thebans was first performed by English National Opera at the London Coliseum on 3 May 2014. It is a co-production with Theater Bonn.
Thebans is supported by The Boltini Trust, PRS for Music Foundation, George and Patti White, and ENO’s Contemporary opera Group.