Julian Anderson: Thebans

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It will take time for Anderson’s new opera Thebans to yield up all its secrets, says Helen Wallace, but its musical quality is beyond doubt.

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In 1980 Mark-Anthony Turnage made his audacious debut with Greek. Berkhoff’s explosive Oedipal text seemed to drag a score out of the young composer. However crude the music, its comic risk and howl of raw pain can still knock an audience flat.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, Julian Anderson has approached the same myth in its context and produced Greek’s polar opposite, a work of sophisticated ambiguity. He comes to it having developed his own vibrant musical language, a sort of supercharged franglais that draws on Messiaen, Grisey, Vivier, Nørgård, Tippett, Carter and the whole English choral tradition. He may belong in the same time-frame as Benjamin, Knussen and Adès, but his voice is utterly distinct. This is a score of almost intimidating quality, a compelling lyric stream that will surely yield up its secrets long into the future. Where it has divided critical opinion is in its mode of dramatisation. Thebans has neither Greek’s brute emotional punch, nor the cool distance of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex. Anderson and Frank McGuinness have tried to do something different, closer in feel to Tippett’s King Priam, but more ruthlessly compressed.

It has to be said that in an operatic triptych of three separate plays there’s a lot of story to get through, and – in 105 minutes – little time to develop character or reflect on events. Yet this was only a problem in the longest, first act, Past (Oedipus the King, nobly sung by Roland Wood) where Oedipus’s discovery that he has killed his father and married his mother is a breathless unravelling at the expense of tension.  No sooner is his identity revealed than Jocasta (a powerfully desperate Susan Bickley) is dead and he blinded.  As the libretto hurls repeated statements at us from chorus and soloists, one longs for a sense of a truth inexorably unfolding. McGuinness’s poetry is taut, but bathos occasionally creeps in, ‘He’s dead and gone, done and dusted’.

Subtle dramatisations lie in the score, which makes the greatest claim on our attention. Anderson’s interest in sound spectra gives his music an expanded, ethereal dimension: pitches breathe their overtones, harmonies wind down through microtones as hopes dissolve; the music of hermaphrodite Tiresias (bass Matthew Best) introduces striking non-western tuning, Peter Hoare’s toad-like Creon masks his mendacity in elegant strophes which resolve onto dissonances. In the forest of Colonus in Act III, dense string chords hang like mysterious veils of electronic sound in the texture. 

Each act has its own sound-world. Dynamic rhythmic impetus marks the first, opening with percussive clicks and a seam of husky bass clarinet, from out of which explodes a luminous chorus, redolent of Walton. Tiresias announces the ‘truth is to be told’ over a pungent pizzicato dance, Oedipus’s despairing resignation, ‘Apollo, oh what have you planned for me?’ slides into a bluesy swing.

The 20-minute second act, Future (Antigone) achieves the sharpest focus, and is the best staged (by Pierre Audi, designed by Tom Pye). Creon has formed a claustrophobic police state following the death of Oedipus’s two sons, evoked in a sombre processional, vertical harmony mirrored in a set of high monumentality. He opens the act in a daringly simple, unaccompanied soliloquy, having no need to hide behind ornament now he is in power.  Neither Antigone’s defiance (a passionate Julia Sporsén) nor his son Haemon’s warning (the promising Anthony Gregory) accompanied by siren-like wails, can disturb his calm tyranny, until Tiresias appears. Here, the interactions feel genuine, involving, revealing of Anderson’s opera instinct. Antigone’s ravishing death-song is in liquescent contrast to the act’s pulsing monotony. There’s a palpable sense of the chorus breaking Creon’s power as they reprise whirling rhythms from Act 1 in a dazzling ‘Free her!’

The final act, Present, returns in time to the death of Oedipus at Colonus, evoked in the complex twittering of winds, rattle of multiple wood-blocks and eerie, disembodied chorus with a glistening Chrisopher Ainslie as Theseus. Oedipus stumbles blindly over logs in a scene that lacked directorial conviction. The wave of sensual ecstasy that carries him beyond life is striking in this curiously sexless opera. It generates such momentum, Antigone’s final lament drains tension, though, in looking forward, underlines the work’s structural circularity.

Thebans may be a terse re-telling, but its dense, iridescent score, marvellously realised here by Gardner and ENO chorus and orchestra, moves in a magnified dimension. Two long intervals threatened to break its spell. Anderson has woven a cloth of dreams; let’s hope future directors tread carefully.  

Photo: Roland Wood as Oedipus and Julia Sporsen as Antigone