Turnage: The Silver Tassie

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Turnage
LABELS: ENO Alive
WORKS: The Silver Tassie
PERFORMER: Gerald Finley, John Graham-Hall, Anne Howells, Sarah Connolly, Vivian Tierney, David Kempster, Mary Hegarty; ENO Chorus & Orchestra/Paul Daniel
CATALOGUE NO: 001 (distr. 020 7845 9500; www.eno.org)

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In The Silver Tassie, Mark-Anthony Turnage drew on the lyrical beauty of The Country of the Blind and the terse, demotic delivery of Greek to create a conventional opera on a grand scale. Seeing the first performance at the London Coliseum, I felt at times the overburdened orchestral textures threatened to overwhelm its dark force.

Certainly, Turnage’s predilection for lower vocal registers and bass instrumentation gives the work both its strong emotional undertow and its worst patches of fog. But ultimately, The Silver Tassie must stand or fall by its success in conveying the pathos of O’Casey’s play, about a crippled young blood returning from Flanders to an Irish village.

And on hearing this well-recorded live performance, its tragic power is not in question. Turnage himself viewed the opera from the start like a symphony, with a first-movement exposition, a string-heavy slow movement, a wind-dominated ‘scherzo’, and a finale constructed from curdled dance tunes. The whole is tightly organised and shot through with catchy motifs that slide from football chants at that start into the bitter rhetoric of despair.

Gerald Finley is magnificent as Harry, the sporting hero turned paraplegic, driven by physical energy and then pure anger. He sustains the role well, despite the often uniform shape and pacing of the lines. Sarah Connolly’s part as the nurse Susie was also written for her. From her first piercing warning, ‘God is looking at you’, she is a compelling presence, in fine voice. Mary Hegarty is a sweet-toned Jessie, though, like Connolly, she slips in and out of an Irish brogue. Less focused is Gwynne Howell as the Croucher, Prophet of Doom in the trenches: his monotonous declamations are not helped by a wide wobble, and the generally strong chorus sounds ropey here. I found the ‘slow’ movement the dramatic weak-point of the opera, as it is of the play: a soporific rather than chilling meditation on the futility of war.

More poignant is the penultimate lament of the blinded Teddy (the rich-voiced David Kempster) and Harry, to the keening accompaniment of a soprano sax. I wished at the time that the opera could have ended here, with its glacial brass chords. In fact, there is some even more extraordinary music in the final scenes, notably the serene coda, with its patter of fiddle and dancing feet.

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Helen Wallace