Julian Anderson’s first opera Thebans burst into life at its English National Opera premiere on 3 May and scored a huge success for the composer. With a dramatic thrust that pins you to your seat, choral writing of power rarely heard in the opera house, orchestration that speaks of mastery at every stroke, and character portrayals so vivid that you leave the opera house haunted by their ghosts, this is a mighty opera of great importance.
Thebans is based on Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, which Anderson and his librettist, Frank McGuinness, have distilled to c.100 minutes of taught drama. The themes of the original – blood, murder, incest, political ambition, love and loyalty – are, if anything, intensified in this bold, erudite adaptation. ‘The drama is vivid and strong,’ writes Anderson, ‘I don’t want people to know what’s hit them until they’ve left the opera house.’
Some composers might test their operatic mettle with a small work, but Anderson’s first foray into opera is confidently written on the grandest of scales (Thebans is scored for a cast of 9, full chorus and large orchestra); its epic majesty making this premiere all the more memorable. Outstanding performances by the premiere cast (including Roland Wood as Oedipus, Susan Bickley as Jocasta, Julia Sporsén as Antigone, and Peter Hoare as Creon) added further lustre to this exceptional performance. And in director Pierre Audi and conductor Edward Gardner, Anderson has found kindred spirits.
Thebans is a co-production with Theater Bonn which will give the German premiere in May 2015. ENO performances run till 3 June (including broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 26 May).
A film abut the making of the opera can be viewed here.
‘A New Opera That Works on Every Level’
‘A New Opera That Works on Every Level… It is a measure of Anderson and McGuinness’s work that the stark tale of Oedipus plays out in rapt silence… With plangent brass and untuned percussion, the opening single-note chorus sets the mood magnificently, drawing us into a work that keeps us gripped and constantly surprised. Anderson’s masterful effects always serve the music, rather than take its place. There is a primal, almost surreal aspect to much of his writing, sometimes spikey and energetic, with great rhythmic impetus, sometimes preternaturally calm, like mist over water… not a single note is wasted in this economic and appealing score’
Musical America (Keith Clarke), 6 May 2014
‘fresh and thrilling… [an] extraordinary retelling of the myth’
‘Julian Anderson and librettist Frank McGuinness have brilliantly compressed Sophocles's trilogy into a compelling and dramatic narrative that feels fresh and thrilling… One of the great qualities of Thebans – Julian Anderson’s dazzling new opera – is that it blows apart this crippling reverence and presents the drama afresh… This raw dramatic quality is partly due to McGuinness’s libretto, which keeps its language direct and the pace relentlessly high… But the real magic comes from Anderson’s score, in which the directness of the libretto is simultaneously enhanced and fractured. Indeed, the clash between the score’s elemental rhythmic profile and the shimmering quality of its expanded harmonic language seems at once to slow and speed the action so that each event appears both inexorable and ambiguous. Anderson’s opera thus gives access to the psychology of the action in a way in which few versions have managed, or attempted… The superb solo writing is even eclipsed by that for the chorus… [an] extraordinary retelling of the myth.’
The Guardian (Guy Dammann), 5 May 2014
‘of arguably the most spectacular orchestral writing heard in any opera of the past half a century.’
‘…he certainly delivers an extraordinary finale in which Oedipus’s death occurs like a Wagnerian transfiguration, haloed in the warm, rich glow of arguably the most spectacular orchestral writing heard in any opera of the past half a century. For mastery of texture, color and invention, Mr. Anderson sets standards… Mr. Audi also hit the right note in a staging with the gravitas of ancient times… The evening, though, belonged to Mr. Anderson himself. Now 47, he’s been in the public eye for 20 years and had a much-admired career… but we’ve been waiting for a really major statement — like an opera — to confirm it. Thebans is the confirmation… it is a triumph of sustained intensity that has dramatic impact on its own terms. And its individuality is striking… this is an opera like no other — which makes Mr. Anderson a maverick or a genius; perhaps both. Either way, his Thebans is distinctively impressive.’
The New York Times (Michael White), 5 May 2014
‘intelligent, ambitious, the most assured contemporary opera I’ve seen on the ENO stage in years’
‘Like Brahms with the Symphony, Julian Anderson has kept his powder dry with opera, waiting until his late-forties to produce his first – Thebans… The result is very impressive – intelligent, ambitious, the most assured contemporary opera I’ve seen on the ENO stage in years, and one that is magnificently shaped by the grandeur of Pierre Audi’s staging… Anderson’s music is wonderfully accomplished, illuminating characters and libretto with mercurial aptness, knowing when to retreat and when to dominate, and giving a special charge to the doom-laden atmosphere. It’s also recognisably English, with echoes of Britten’s clarity and sympathy to words and Tippett’s energy underpinned by a strongly rhythmic propulsion, and the solo vocal lines are always singer-friendly and don’t sound imposed onto the orchestral surface. As you’d expect from this master of choral writing, the choruses, vital to the drama, are superbly written, and sung, and Edward Gardner’s galvanising conducting and the ENO Orchestra did full justice to the generous invention of the score.’
Classicalsource (Peter Reed), 4 May 2013
‘Thebans may point to the future of opera’
‘Thebans has the makings of a modern classic. Julian Anderson’s much anticipated first opera, which received its world première at English National Opera on Saturday, is both epic and restrained, traditional and cutting-edge, hard-hitting and subtle…. McGuinness has whittled Sophocles’s plays down to a succession of very short, simple lines that can be easily heard when sung across an auditorium. Anderson’s music fills the emotional space around these lines. It is very fluid in the first and third acts: harmonies, instrumental sounds and rhythms are forever shifting, flowing into and over each other. This effect is intensified through extensive use of microtones. There is an acute attention to instrumentation and the detail of sounds, particularly in the Act Three depiction of the wood… the sound-world he so meticulously crafts is a kaleidoscopic marvel of colours and musical comments, always engaging, sometimes gripping, never clichéd. For all the antiquity of its roots, Thebans may point to the future of opera.’
Londonist (Stephen Wilmot), 5 May 2014
‘something worth waiting for’
‘It has been far too long since English National Opera last presented the premiere of a major new opera by a British composer, but in Julian Anderson’s Thebans the company has undoubtedly come up with something worth waiting for. Indeed, the ingredients looked good from the start. Now in his late 40s, Anderson is one of the most admired British composers of his generation, with a string of remarkable pieces to his credit in the fields of orchestral, choral and chamber music, all of them testifying to technical skills of a very high order. His new opera is no exception… One of Anderson’s most notable achievements is his ability to allow each line to cut through the orchestral texture. His score is well paced, and the composer’s diverse musical language proves an asset in shading in the variety of characters and situations required over the course of three very different dramas. The complex, ambiguous music nevertheless makes an immediate impact.’
The Stage (George Hall), 6 May 2014
‘All praise to ENO for commissioning a major work of this quality.’
‘Lyrical, direct and brilliantly performed… Julian Anderson's compelling opera [is]… A work of skilful compression… 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… Anderson's music is luminous and vivid, encompassing the broadly tonal and the wildly dissonant. It doesn't sound like anyone else's… He has always expanded aural horizons using electronics and microtones – the latter ever present in Thebans… At each dramatic moment, he shifts the sound with subtle imagination… 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… Thebans could not have had a more auspicious start: the performance was outstanding… There is much to digest and contemplate... All praise to ENO for commissioning a major work of this quality.’
The Observer (Fiona Maddocks), 11 May 2014
‘one of the best things Anderson has done’
‘…the result is magnificent. Unlike many composers dealing with the classics, Anderson can actually read Greek… and it is not hard to see the present magnum opus, and the operatic genre itself, as a culmination of his intellectual and creative pursuits alike. It is his first opera, yet his music all along has had a powerful dramatic essence… Everything was mentally in place, then, for his bursting into opera, and he had the luck to find the right librettist… [Frank McGuiness] has supplied what seems an eminently settable, elegant condensation of the drama… The superb assurance of the writing metallically intent but underpinned by a novel harmonic richness, makes it, I think, one of the best things Anderson has done… throughout the opera Anderson’s setting of English has the clarion confidence of a Gerald Finzi.’
The Sunday Times (Paul Driver), 11 May 2014