Freud spent thousands of words analysing the problem of Oedipus.
A work of skilful compression - three acts in 100 minutes, instead of the three separate plays by Sophocles on which it is based - Thebans is almost easier to praise for what it avoids: it is not cumbrous or heavy, irritating or indulgent, decorative or lightweight. There are no unnecessary diversions from the central telling of the ancient myth: King Oedipus unwittingly killed his father, married his mother and is responsible for the plague now destroying the city state of Thebes: "Women give birth to buckets of blood./ Meat turns to manure in our hands", as McGuinness puts it.
This is Anderson's first opera. At 47, the British composer has written a prodigious body of orchestral, choral and chamber works. His name is often linked with
Anderson's music is luminous and vivid, encompassing the broadly tonal and the wildly dissonant. It doesn't sound like anyone else's. Try Alhambra Fantasy (2000), Book of Hours (2004) or
At each dramatic moment, he shifts the sound with subtle imagination, as when, in Act 1, Jocasta (
Above all, his scores are lyrical, in the case of Thebans specifically lending itself to song. Anderson's choral writing is perhaps the strongest element in the opera, majestic, fluent and affecting. First the chorus represents the sick citizens of Thebes, hunched and frail with disease, like figures from a luxuriant Alma-Tadema scene in search of food and water. Later, they are offstage, invisible, lost souls or gods. Audi and designer
The music begins unnervingly, rattling and desiccated, before the chorus's lament bursts forth. The percussion section, requiring five players, consists of a delicious skein of sound from maracas, rainstick, various bells, whip, anvil, toy drum. Low woodwind insinuates itself creepily throughout. The contrabass clarinet is twinned darkly with the sexually ambiguous Tiresias, expertly sung by the bass,
The text is audible throughout. As for the handling of the original, McGuinness's interpretation is no more a facsimile of Sophocles than Verdi's Otello is of Shakespeare or Massenet's Don Quichotte of Cervantes's masterpiece. It's true that in Act 1 the detective story sense of working out what happened has been telescoped. But placing Antigone's story second, in a short, enthralling act, is unproblematic. It also allows the third act to inhabit a more ambiguous world of shadow, which might be the afterlife and is therefore outside standard narrative.
Thebans could not have had a more auspicious start: the performance was outstanding. Chorus and orchestra excelled under Gardner.
The ethereal but gritty soprano
in ENO's Thebans. Photograph by
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