Review: Music Theatre Wales - Greek @ WMC
This one-off performance of Greek in Cardiff proved that modern opera is just as important and thought-provoking as any other art form today.
Mark-Anthony Turnage has written a blistering score, an unforgiving take on the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus, now set in the London of 1980. He is the golden boy of modern British music. He never intended to write an opera till Steven Berkoff’s play of the same name persuaded him otherwise. With another opera of his he has now destroyed, the other was on Anna-Nicole Smith, a piece that grabbed people’s attention, for sure.
Music Theatre Wales for the last twenty-five years has created opera that is now. Their passion for new operatic works and classics in the field, are testament to their underlying love of the great art form. I have always felt they have played second fiddle to Welsh National Opera, yet for tonight WNO are presenting one of their shows for the first time. I recall MTW's performance of Michael Tippet’s The Knot Garden some years ago. I won't be too damning, since I must listen to the opera again (a great quote from the text is ‘If for a timid moment, we submit to love’). At the New Theatre, there must have been about 5% of an audience to fill the theatre, the worst turnout I’ve yet to see. Things have changed now, with Greek selling out and winning awards. Is this the piece that will put them on the map? Make them get noticed and appreciated? Not to say they aren’t already.
Presented with a programme in the style of a tabloid newspaper, I knew the evening would be anything but conventional (it didn’t need an interval either). It has turned out to be the highlight of this operatic season (I say this before I see Roberto Devereux and The Killing Flower). This is the type of opera the common man should see. Don’t want to sound all snobby, but in light of recent events, this work has deified becoming a period piece. The riots seen two years ago counteract the ones in the 80s. Plus the death earlier this year of Margaret Thatcher, the most dividing Prime Minister ever, also notched up great tension and gave her a second coming for us to quip over her views and actions. It was when they were first rehearsing this two years ago for the premier in Brecon, that the London riots burst its seems, out of nowhere. One troubling thought that crossed my mind at the time was would riots start in Cardiff?
***Please note: Spoilers below***
For the modernisation of the story Oedipus becomes Eddy, a Cockney rapscallion who wants more out of life. Leaving his adopted parents behind, he embarks on the improvement of his life. Without knowing it he kills his biological father and marries his real mother at a cafe, none-the-wiser to who they both are. She recovers from her husband’s death quicker than you could cook a ready-meal. Ten years past and things are good. But he must slay the Sphinx that lies outside the town wall. He achieves this. Gradually after the celebrations the revelations of whom he has really married and whom he killed becomes a reality. It’s a tremendous end and remains quite shocking. In fury, he plucks his own eyes out. He then goes on to stress the point that what they have done is not wrong. Dripping with blood on his face he storms off, exiting the theatre and leaving the cast dumfounded.
I bow to all who took part in this performance. The ensemble of musicians, conducted by Michael Rafferty, were actors in their own right, taking part in the action as it unfolded before us. With the added bonus of piano, harp, celesta, a decent array of percussion, the performance still looked heavy on the cello. With only one violin and double bass the three cello players did look a little much. But the sound world was this sleazy, muddied, agonised and somehow redeeming score. Marcus Farnsworth as Eddy was the real deal. Raw and very honest. Who knew a cockney accent could sing well in opera? There was a fair bit of talking here as well, so the accent could float around in both states. The rest of the ensemble helped glue the work together. Sharing multiple roles, their energy and comic timing helped the work along nicely, with its many props, costumes and scenes changes. Much praise for Sally Silver, Louise Winter and Gwion Thomas for this undertaking.
This was certainly adult opera with many themes that would raise eyebrows (not to mention the incest). The blue language and vile descriptions, left for a near-tasteless experience. One lady walking out after the c-word was said. But the highlights were the riot, with the musicians thumping along to the beat. Some held riot gear as the singers shouted into mega phones, bashed boots and gave out flyers to the audience. The other highlight was the Sphinx, who were the two female singers with smeared lipstick and Thatcheresque wigs. The hissing, scolding and insulting nature of the creature is enough for our hero to end its life. He must answer its riddle to which he is successful. The jazzy entrance for the thing is played, standing up by the brass section to full-effect.
Eddy was blatantly Saint George here, with his flag adoring his back and a sword to kill the dragon or sphinx here. The English flag is a rare sight in Cardiff and not always appreciated by some. We did have English surtitles for the performance, yet they were nowhere to be seen for the sphinx scene. The part I wanted to read the most since so much goes on vocally and on the two microphones, the two singers incorporate into it. Silver having to hold on to her wig for dear life, as it never seemed to settle on her head, yet thankfully got ripped off at the end as their beheadings to great effect. The video work also was a nice crutch to fall on a times, even if it looked like there was not enough space for the set with the numbers of the orchestra.
A bolstering, hilarious opera that shocks and shows Britain for what it truly is.
Greek now tours to Birmingham, London and Manchester.
The performance of Greek on Saturday 26th October 2013 at the Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House will be recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 3.