For its basis on dramas that have proven so influential, Julian Anderson’s Thebans – a new operatic adaptation of Sophocles’ dramas on Oedipus and Antigone – feels thoroughly undramatic. The triptych of stories are presented out of chronological order, apparently to afford Oedipus’ death a more climactic dramatic moment, but in both Anderson’s score and Pierre Audi’s direction the opera is stagnant.
That’s not to say it’s slow-paced. Cramming three dramas into three short acts is a difficult task, but it results in a piece that’s all narrative and exposition. As the drama rolls along at a brisk pace, it never once pauses to allow any depth of emotion or characterisation. The audience never cares about these characters and the music never allows them to shine – aria is non-existent.
Frank McGuinness provides a libretto that’s direct and concise with perfect lucidity of plot, but there’s little poetry or spark. The same can be said for Anderson’s score that never reaches its potential. The focus is very much on rhythm and texture, allowing for the odd beautiful moment of shimmering harp, rich chorus harmony, or an unaccompanied monologue at the start of the second act. Yet any semblance of melody is never allowed to develop into lyricism and any sense of climax is forced; instead the score is constant and contained, never pausing to revel in sonorous beauty, never allowing the drama to breathe. With little to compel the audience, boredom quickly sets in.
It’s not aided by the dull set design. With so many modern operas creating lavishly artistic sets, it’s surprising that Tom Pye has opted for something so static and lifeless, whilst Audi’s direction is pedestrian and full of disparity between the libretto and stage action. The ‘future’ set in the second act is the most successful, with its all black costume design, stark lighting and frightening use of projection. Overall, however, Thebans offers little to excite the eyes or the ears.
There are, thankfully, some gems in the cast, particularly from the women who all offer perfect diction – namely Susan Bickley as Jocasta and Julia Sporsen as Antigone, though neither are given a full opportunity to let their voices soar. Roland Wood offers a strong performance as Oedipus and Jonathan McGovern shines as the young Polynices. Elsewhere the cast often struggle against the orchestra, particularly in the lower registers – perhaps an issue with orchestration rather than vocal projection.
Ultimately the focus on narrative above all is the downfall of Thebans – a more exciting production to match the thrill of the drama alongside some sparkling music would enrich this otherwise dry opera.
Watch: This run of Thebans at the London Coliseum has now ended.