Two decades at the top of his game and Julian Anderson had not composed an opera. When the invitation from English National Opera arrived, he decided commendably to commit himself straight off to a full-scale work, taking Sophocles’s Theban tragedies as his theme – not just one of the plays, mind, but all three at once.
The result is Thebans, with libretto by Irish dramatist Frank McGuinness and drawn from Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone. It is an ambitious project. The three tragedies, although not originally a trilogy, follow the inexorable cycle of guilt and revenge down one family line, and the opera creators’ aim is to compress that into a single-minded narrative.
And compress they have – not to say squeezed Sophocles till the pips squeak. Their whole opera lasts less than two hours. Oedipus Tyrannos comprises the 50-minute first act; Antigone, questionably placed second, is stripped down to 20 minutes, Oedipus at Colonus a barely more expansive half an hour. Story, issues, debates pass by at speed, elucidated in McGuinness’s clear prose and Anderson’s highly intelligent music (three cheers that the composer allows the words to be heard). But where is the human element?
It is hard to empathise with any of these people when they are given so little space to tell us what they think or feel (Antigone barely registers in her own play). Compare Strauss and Hofmannsthal in their treatment of Sophocles’s Elektra, where we seem to get right inside the characters’ minds. Here, it is only in the last act that the narrative pace relaxes, as Oedipus nears his journey to the afterworld, and music and drama alike enter a newly visionary, and compelling, domain.
For the rest, Anderson has supplied lucid music, alert to the drama, more interesting perhaps for the orchestra than the singers. A good cast is headed by Roland Wood’s Oedipus, Peter Hoare’s Creon and Susan Bickley’s Jocasta, and the ENO orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner excels itself. The glittering sounds they get out of Anderson’s wind writing are especially memorable, like a midday sun glinting over the Aegean – though Pierre Audi’s gloomy production, rather redolent of the 1970s, does not pick that up. Admirable, but not quite a must-see.