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Oedipus made easy: Lyrical, direct and brilliantly performed, Julian Anderson's debut opera, Thebans, also makes short work of Sophocles: Thebans Coliseum, London WC2; until 3 June Brett Dean UK premiere/Britten Sinfonia Wigmore Hall, London W1

May 11, 2014

Fiona Maddocks



Freud spent thousands of words analysing the problem of Oedipus. Frank McGuinness has summed it up in seven: "Husband and wife are mother and son." Read and recoil. The line is taken from the Irish playwright's libretto for Thebans, Julian Anderson's compelling opera which was given its world premiere at English National Opera last week, conducted by Edward Gardner and directed by Pierre Audi.

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 Thomas Ades and George Benjamin - they are of similar age; all three studied under Alexander Goehr at Cambridge. When it comes to their music, this association has little use since they are all so different. Britain is enjoying a golden age of composers. Let's celebrate their individuality instead of giving them form like horses (by which I mean if another person says to me "Thebans is not as good as [Benjamin's] Written on Skin" or "Written on Skin is not as good as [Ades's] The Tempest", or any variation thereof, I will reach for something sharp).

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 Bell Mass (2010), the last written for the choir of Westminster Abbey's 450th anniversary. He has always expanded aural horizons using electronics and microtones - the latter ever present in Thebans, via swooping string and brass glissandi, or by having a flute, clarinet and synthesiser each tuned down a quarter-tone.

At each dramatic moment, he shifts the sound with subtle imagination, as when, in Act 1, Jocasta (Susan Bickley) has her agonised solo begging Oedipus not to explore his past: "May you never know who you are." He replies, almost coolly: "Let whatever happens, happen", with spiky, jazzy woodwind accompaniment. At that moment, the shepherd who can reveal the secret comes in. Woodwind players blow down their instruments, no notes, just breath. The mood switches irrevocably. In Act 3, here called The Death of Sophocles, Anderson makes strange forest murmurs using four lots of woodblocks, ricocheting like fluttering, pecking birds.

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 Tom Pye have made a well delineated staging that serves its purpose, from forum-type space to fascist cabinet room to infertile grove. All is beautifully lit by Jean Kalman.

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, Matthew Best, while a mournful cor anglais shadows the vocal line of Antigone, passionately delivered by Julia Sporsen, soprano.

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. Roland Wood as Oedipus, arrogant then floored, showed no sign of the throat infection he was suffering; Peter Hoare's weak and wily Creon, Anthony Gregory's ear-catching Stranger from Corinth/Haemon and Christopher Ainslie's otherworldly, gilded Theseus/Messenger mastered their difficult but effective vocal lines, in which word stresses did not always fall on the strong beat but sounded all the more natural for it. There is much to digest and contemplate. A co-production with Theater Bonn, Thebans gets under the skin and leaves you unsettled. Go and try it. Listen to Radio 3 on 26 May and decide for yourself. All praise to ENO for commissioning a major work of this quality.

In Brett Dean's String Quartet No 2, currently on a world premiere tour by the Britten Sinfonia and others, the Australian composer has turned to the figure of Ophelia, with high soprano singing texts by Matthew Jocelyn using Ophelia's words or those directed at her (such as "Get thee to a nunnery"). Once principal viola player in the Berlin Philharmonic, Dean makes exhaustive use of string technique, at times percussive and metallic, at others with the full, dense textures.

The ethereal but gritty soprano Allison Bell, together with Jacqueline Shave and Miranda Dale (violins), Caroline Dearnley (cello) and the composer on viola, made a micro-drama of their own. As Dean writes, Shakespeare's "ministering angel" casts a beguiling spell over us. If this was his aim with this taut, refined work, he has succeeded.

Captions:

Roland Wood's Oedipus (top) forces the truth out of the shepherd (Paul Sheehan)

in ENO's Thebans. Photograph by Tristram Kenton


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Source: Observer (UK)


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