Julian Anderson’s musical language is bursting with vitality and optimism, with perky heterophonic textures and kaleidoscopic orchestral textures. How, then, would he fare in this retelling of Sophocles’ three Theban plays, each of which traces a devastating descent into despair? Thebans displayed Anderson’s usual bewitching range of orchestral sonorities, but also saw the composer draw from a darker palette, offering a sympathetic commentary on proceedings. Ultimately, though, the impact of the opera was somewhat marred by the accelerated pace made necessary by the extensive source material.
Sophocles’ three Theban tragedies slowly unfold a series of harrowing events which culminate in shattering climaxes. Librettist Frank McGuinness inverted the chronological order of the plays: Oedipus Rex was followed by Antigone, which displaced Oedipus in Colonus. Anderson justifies this decision in the programme on the grounds that Oedipus in Colonus (Act III) is about endings, although it seems unnecessarily disruptive: isn’t Act II also about endings, with the legacy of Oedipus brought to its end?
McGuinness’s libretto was an odd mixture of colloquialisms and poetic reflection, and the dramatic pacing was inconsistent: Act I was taut and tense, but the other acts were less successful. However, the primary issue of this adaptation was its compression. In order to squeeze the three plays into a running time of two and a half hours, many details were omitted. Crucially, this meant that the opera lost its emotional impact. Without sufficient time to fully develop the characters, their fates could not possess the same tragic poignancy found in Sophocles. With Haemon given so little attention, it became hard to empathise with him, and his suicide was not the heart-wrenching apotheosis it could have been.
Although he successfully created a mood of brooding restlessness at points, Anderson’s style sometimes jarred with the subject matter: his outward-looking, open style seemed ill-suited for the torment and despair which underpins all three plays. His use of the chorus was his trump card: whether as the pathetic citizens of Act I, the obedient subjects of Act II or the mysterious, hallucinatory voices heard by Oedipus, they lifted the drama to another level.
Anderson’s vocal writing was assured, ranging from arioso to extended lyricism. Peter Hoare’s Creon was slick and untrustworthy, while Roland Wood maintained a sense of dignity throughout his sufferings. As Tiresias, Matthew Best’s bass voice was highlighted by luminous orchestral textures. Julia Sporsén sang Antigone with purity and defiance; although her cry of despair concluded the opera, Act II had already revealed that she would find the strength to carry on.
The ENO Orchestra were on fine form under Edward Gardner, despatching Anderson’s colourful score with finesse. Praise must go to the clarinet section, who played a prominent role throughout and added a piquance to the texture. The atmosphere created in the third act was especially effective, with Oedipus facing his death in a bleak wasteland (chillingly realised by set designer Tom Pye) to a backdrop of icy strings.
The structure of the opera meant that it fell slightly short of the promise of the first act, racing through events and making it hard to fully invest in the characters. Yet the opera certainly revealed sides to Julian Anderson we haven’t heard before, confirming his instinctive talent for orchestral colour and showing his effective writing for the voice. With Anderson’s dazzling score, some striking staging decisions and an electric first act, there is much to recommend in Thebans. But my overall impression was of a work with a few wrinkles still to be ironed out in order to pack the emotional punch which is so crucial to a successful tragedy.
Thebans is on at ENO until 3rd June.