Anyone thinking that classical reception has had its day in anything except cheesy cinema should take a look at Julian Anderson’s new opera Thebans, having its premier run at the English National Opera at the moment. Regular readers will know that there is quite a lot of classical reception knocking around in opera, so Anderson is following a well-established inspirational route (as indeed was Harrison Birtwhistle). It was very exciting to be in the audience for one of the earliest performances a couple of weeks ago – but, as you might have gathered, I have some thoughts on how this material was used and put together. I don’t have a great deal to say about the musical side, but here are a couple of reviews which do just that.
Anderson had set himself quite an ambitious task in getting the three Theban plays into one opera, and has fiddled around with the order – he starts with Oedipus Rex, going to Antigone for the second act, and Oedipus Colonus for the finale. Anderson argues in his program notes that his reason for doing this was to create more dramatic unity. Each act begins with a chronological subtitle (‘past’, ‘future’ and ‘present’) so we know where we are in the arc; this adds to a sense of inevitability about the plot’s movement, but does take a bit of the bite out of the bleak dead end which closes Antigone. In order to get everything in, Anderson has also done some rigorous pruning – Oedipus Rex takes up the hour or so of the first act, but Antigone is given twenty minutes, and Oedipus at Colonus has half an hour. Again, this is probably favourable to slavishly following the structure of the originals, especially since they were not originally written as a trilogy. However, those choices to cut have consequences.
At first, I was quite keen on the Antigone being trimmed that much – I think it’s a difficult play to produce well, because the plot’s reliance on an audience understanding the tension between honouring your state and honouring your gods tends to flummox modern directors (see my thoughts on the National’s recent Antigone). However, the problem that Anderson’s trimming of the play creates is that Antigone herself is more or less side-lined – her great agon with Creon is all but gone, and instead the emphasis lies on the relationship between Creon and his son Haemon. Antigone’s probing challenge to the state is replaced by Creon’s suffering at his calamitous parenting; Antigone’s death becomes tragic because of the action it causes for Haemon rather than her sacrifice and commitment to principles. She also becomes almost silent. As you may imagine, I have Issues with adaptations that silence women’s voices, particularly those from the ancient world (even if they are voices enacted by men).
However, this reflects Anderson’s choice to make Thebans not about state and personal ambition, but about family crisis and, more specifically, about father-son relationships. They are placed at the core of each act, and act as the cornerstone for plot development. There are other relationships, of course, but they are side-lined. Although Oedipus frets about having slept with his mother, the libretto speaks far more about his fears concerning his father, and Jocasta’s suicide came as – not an afterthought, precisely, but as an implicit rather than explicit consequence of the truth being found out. As I have said, Antigone’s loyalty to her brothers becomes side-lined by the relationship between Creon and Haemon; even in Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone’s role as faithful daughter was ignored and minimalized as Polynices came to ask blessing for his war against his brother, and of course Antigone is not allowed to watch her father’s death, shutting her out completely for a substitute son, the boy-king countertenor Theseus. Oh, and forget any chance of seeing Ismene on stage – Oedipus’ second daughter might as well not exist.
What all this trimming does is make an opera with a strong narrative about father-son relationships and the consequences of their failures – the total abnegation that leads to Oedipus killing Laius, the mishandling that means Haemon commits suicide, the cursing of father by son which will ultimately doom both sons in Colonus. It’s a narrative of failed masculinity acted out on a very personal stage – for all of the apparatus of the state on stage (and I include the repetitive crochets that symbolised Creon’s fascist state, along with the military junta uniforms), ultimately the implications for the citizens took a back seat to a family’s individual crisis. Despite the presence of the chorus on stage for the first act, their role as citizens was never quite active. Another form the failure of masculinity took was the frankly weird relationship between Creon and Antigone – hinted at in the first act, referred back to in the second, and staged as attempted rape in the third. That added a whole retrospective dosage of ‘what that…?’ to the relationship between Creon and Haemon, incidentally, but signalled Creon’s failure to manage or impose his masculine will upon the weaker woman, and his subsequent desire to annihilate her totally.
Which is what makes the presence of Tiresias in this opera about things going wrong so very interesting. The part is scored for a bass, and has a good dose of profundo, but the costuming is deliberately gender-queer. As you see from the Google image search, as well as the almost inevitable sunglasses to signal blindness and two walking sticks, the singer was padded with a bosom, wore a long dress and had an up-do, meaning he presented like a society matron of a certain age. This was a deliberate reference to the element of Tiresias’ myth where he lived as a woman for seven years. However, he was the only male character to have successful agency over the course of the opera – instead of struggling to impose his will on the world in vain, he accepted what was fated. While not fitting into a model of ‘typical’ masculinity, he nevertheless negotiated the boundaries of the operatic world with greatest success.
What does it mean when a modern operatic adaptation of the Theban plays focuses so much on these issues of gender performance and male-male kin relationships? Perhaps, I might suggest, more or less the same as the rise of male protagonist action/fantasy movies set in the ancient world, and the sorts of things that mean we now worry about a rise in misogynist culture (see Kirsty Wark’s excellent recent documentary Blurred Lines). The crisis of masculinity is ever-present and finding ever more inventive ways to express its anxieties. Myth is good at expressing anxiety – it’s what it does. So for Thebans to be revealing these concerns says rather a lot more about us as a culture than we might like to accept – and part of that is how the plot explores these issues at the expense of its female characters.