So it was almost a spur of the moment decision to 'defect' temporarily and book a ticket for English National Opera's 'Thebans', at the Coliseum. This is a brand new opera composed by Julian Anderson, with a libretto by poet/playwright Frank McGuinness. I was definitely attracted to the idea of catching a new work in its world premiere run - that seemed impossibly exciting - but what clinched it was my love of Greek tragedy, dating all the way back to my Classics & English degree. 'Thebans' is based on Sophocles's three plays dealing with the Oedipus myth, and I was unable to resist going along to see how Anderson and McGuinness had tackled them.
The original plays occupy a unique place in our limited archive of surviving tragedies. Greek tragedies came, as a rule, in trilogies, and were performed in a way that we don't really countenance today. During dramatic festivals, the audiences would watch all day - the playwright would exhibit a tragic trilogy, as well as a 'satyr' play (a kind of ribald, knowing comedy - not linked to what we call 'satire', apparently, but nonetheless presumably designed to stop the audiences all going home and slitting their wrists).
For lovers of patterns where there should be none, it's diverting how often 'threes' come up with Greek tragedy, trilogies aside. We have surviving work from three Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides). We only have one trilogy that survives in full (Aeschylus's 'Oresteia', itself the basis of several operas). We have one set of three plays where all three of the tragedians covered the same story (the Electra myth). And strangest of all, we have Sophocles's 'Theban plays', which tell a continuous story in three parts - except they were never conceived as a trilogy. Each individual 'episode' dates from a different point in Sophocles's career.
In story sequence, the plays are 'Oedipus the King', 'Oedipus at Colonus' and 'Antigone' (although Sophocles wrote 'Antigone' first). 'King' is the most familiar part of the myth, where Oedipus - ruler of Thebes - gradually learns that he has brought plague on the city by unwittingly killing his father and marrying the Queen, Jocasta, his mother. When the truth is revealed, Jocasta commits suicide. Oedipus, however, blinds himself (all very symbolic - he couldn't see the truth staring him in the face, and so on) and goes into exile, reliant on his faithful daughter Antigone. He leaves behind a scheming brother-in-law, Creon, and two warring sons. 'Colonus' tells the story of Oedipus's death - as a kind of cosmic payback, his burial place is destined to enjoy good fortune, and Oedipus decides that Theseus (king of Athens) will be the beneficiary of this, rather than Thebes - despite the efforts of various characters (including recurring 'bad guy' Creon) to get him to return. Finally, in the play bearing her name, Antigone lands in hot water when she defies acting ruler Creon and gives burial rites to her treacherous brother (both Oedipus's sons die in their 'civil war' over control of Thebes). Creon's son Haemon is in love with Antigone, and when she hangs herself rather than wait for Creon's goons to kill her, Haemon also takes his own life in front of his dad, who arrives too late to grant a last-minute reprieve. The play has that tragic 'zing' where the audience sees that justice is served on Creon, but at terrible cost.
'Thebans' the opera, then, brings these plays together as the trilogy they never were at the time. McGuinness does a superb job of filleting the action so that we power through all three stories in a running time of about 2 hours. Perhaps it helped him that Greek tragedies are not too 'plot-heavy' - I don't mean that in a 'nothing happens' dismissive way; more that the stories are logical, linear, inexorable, grinding their way towards an inevitable conclusion, with the tension arising from wondering how the playwright will take us there. The libretto has a brutally spare poeticism that carries some of the slightly artificial phrasing of Greek drama with moments of candid vernacular. There was a moment where I literally caught my breath, as Creon takes the crown from Oedipus and - as the music underpinning their argument cuts out, he hisses, 'You no longer rule the roost - that's OVER'.
After giving the plays a unity they previously lacked, Anderson and McGuinness take a left-field turn that I felt paid off brilliantly: they move the story out of sequence. So, the opera has three acts in the order 'King', 'Antigone', 'Colonus'. In the programme, Anderson explains that this was simply the most exciting way to tell the story - and he's right. 'Antigone' is utterly desolate, uncompromisingly sad and only takes up around 25 minutes of the action. The final act, a flashback to Oedipus's death and the tussle over him that precedes it, is far more dramatic and satisfying. Anderson also points out that it gives the final act an almost dream-like feel, where you know how some of its characters later end up - and he places Colonus in a forest clearing, neither Thebes or Athens, but somewhere apart.
As a result, 'Thebans' is the first, and maybe the last, piece of art to remind me of both 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Parsifal'. The movie sprang to mind purely because of the out-of-sequence storytelling - if you saw and enjoyed that film, you'll know that there's no 'sensible' reason to fool around with the timeline, but it lends some of the later scenes (where you are watching living characters, already knowing how they eventually die) more heft. If there are other operas that do this, I'd love to hear about them, but 'Pulp Fiction' is what popped into my head!
Seeing the forest setting of Act 3 made me wonder if, subtly or even subconsciously, Anderson was feeling Wagner's influence. There are some odd parallels: the sick society that needs healing; a member of that society turning on it as an aggressor; the transformation of the lead character into a Grail-like talisman; the hero's own blindness - at least, initially - to his own destiny, and in finding it, some expiation of his former crimes. We also understand that 'Oedipus at Colonus' was Sophocles's final play, as 'Parsifal' was Wagner's last opera, itself designed to consecrate the stage.
It's also an interesting exercise for me to try and comment on the music in 'Thebans'. It's so new, that there's no CD or DVD to refer back to, so I have my memory alone of the opera's sound and impact. Certain impressions remain intact:
- Appropriately for a production with roots in Greek tragedy, the writing for the chorus was especially powerful and imaginative, with the citizens of Thebes really seeming to gossip and clamour.
- Throughout, the music felt tense and nervy, hugely effective in ratcheting up the tension.
- Peter Hoare, the tenor who sang Creon - and therefore had to create a convincing character across three very different 'plays' - at times achieved a genuinely 'evil' sound and was generally magnificent.
- I suspect Strauss's 'Elektra' must also have been somewhere in the mix of influences, as soprano Julia Sporsen's brilliant tour-de-force closing scene has Antigone crying for her dead father.
- The messengers in the play were sung by a counter-tenor (the excellent Christopher Ainslie). Messenger speeches were Greek tragedy convention for recounting the off-stage carnage, but it's also worth noting that the ancient Greek word for messenger is 'angelos'. In the New Testament - written in Greek - it's 'messengers' from God who bring the glad tidings and we get our word - and therefore concept - of 'angels' from that. It's really fitting then, I think, that a counter-tenor voice, with its more usual links to sacred, choral music should act as messenger here.
As I type, there are two or three performances of 'Thebans' remaining. I really hope they've filmed or recorded it, because it deserves a wide audience, but if you too fancy a spontaneous operatic adventure, please go and check this out. It's ambitious, powerful and full of energy and conviction. Recommended!