Antigone Resurrected then Buried in an Opera

Sophocles' Antigone has been resurrected into opera at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London. The Burial at Thebes, with libretto by Seamus Heaney and music by Dominique Le Gendre, transforms Sophocles' play onto the intimate Globe stage pouring emotion and a great deal of text over the audience in one of the classics of literature. Even before the production began, thumbing through the programme I noticed the libretto was extensive. Every detail of Sophocles' original was in place, and many of the long exclamatory speeches were retained, although re-written in Heaney's award winning poetic style. Keeping all these words in play and still allowing the emotion of the music to present itself is a huge task and in many ways Le Gendre succeeded.

The prelude to the performance brought the cast on stage, and presented characters at a party. The music was slightly indicative of the events, but it was pre-show music so I didn't necessarily expect anything too striking. However, when King Creon took center stage with his wife to perform a "show" dance, not only did the music fail to get the full impact of a celebration, but the dancers failed to adequately pull of the raw emotion needed for such an event. I knew the story, and King Creon had just was a major battle. If you didn't know the story, this "pre-show" must have felt awkward; for me it just felt flat.

Then the opera begins with Antigone, played by Idit Arad, speaking to her sister Ismene, played by Andrea Baker. The opening speeches are long and could have been aria like, but they weren't. Le Gendre could have sent the stage for melodic development, but she didn't. The recitative was very operatic, and the accompaniment was harsh attempting to set the tone of anger and conflict. Unfortunately, Antigone's long speeches leave Ismene little room to do anything but stand and watch. The music doesn't seem to have ebbs and flows, so there is just harsh tones and condemnation. I was standing the yard (cheap seats, so cheap you have to stand) and it felt like it was going to be a long performance.

Enter the Greek Chorus, or the Cabinet Ministers. The opera used these very effectively. The performed the smaller speaking rolls as well as the role of the chorus, integral to Greek Drama. However, the music on their entrance should have been glorious, triumphant; the Cabinet speaks of the "gleaming sun" and "Burning away the darkness", "Argos is defeated" but the music never has a fanfare feel to it. The orchestra is a chamber ensemble, with only one trumpet, one trombone and two french horns, but this is plenty to give a proper brass fanfare.

King Creon, played by Brian Green, appeared on the stage. His performance was one of the finest of the day, nuanced with emotion, clear in his diction and deft in his handling a large amount of text in his aria. The music was a good, quick tempo to keep the pace propelled. Finally, there was something melodic to grasp, although not quite to the degree I would have liked. From the outset it was clear Le Gendre was writing tonal music, focused on harmonies and progressions from the tonal world, and yet, up until King Creon's speech, there was little evidence of melody. Even after the performance was over, there was nothing to retain in terms of lasting melody. Le Gendre did an amazing job making the libretto fit the music, but not so well in getting the music to fit the mood, or to be memorable. While I enjoyed King Creon's aria, it fell short of what it could have been musically.

Enter the Guard. His lines were comic humor and yet they were spoken. When I read the libretto prior to the performance I was so looking forward to hearing how Le Gendre brought life to the comedic relief in an otherwise very heavy piece. Well, she didn't set it to music and the opera came fumbling to a halt. While the performance by John Joyce Guard was well timed, it should have been sung.

As the opera progresses there are few high points. One such is the roll of Tiresias by Martin Nelson. He appears on stage a blind man and yet commands attention from everyone, including the King. Nelson's voice is perfect for the range and he sings out with power, yet providing nuances filled with emotion. His aria is Le Gendre's finest moment in the opera. With a background in opera, musical theatre and non-singing roles, it is obvious Nelson can act as well as sing and he did both extremely well.

The chorus did well in their role as Chorus. Unfortunately, individually they were less strong, but this had more to do with the orchestration than their voices. Daniel Keating-Roberts singing Counter-Tenor has an amazing voice but not particularly strong, so often his lines were covered by the orchestra's relentless repetitive figures. This could have been a problem from where I was standing, as Counter-Tenor voices rise and the Yard is at the actor's feet, but I'm not counting on it given the other problems with the music. Franz Hepburn was a lovely, resonant bass voice, but again the arrangement of the music accompanying his words was often too loud to make what he sang understandable, particularly in his low register. Le Gendre tried to make his voice menacing, but then covered it with a menacing orchestra. Magdalen Ashman was dressed to standout, but neither her character nor her voice did. But then, that is the role of the chorus. Adam Tunnicliffe was the only one of the chorus I could hear clearly throughout the performance and that due mainly to his lines written for the power portion of his range, so he could sing out.

Overall the music was disappointing. While there were moments of joy, so often the music resorted to anger and angles, repetition rather than resonance. Occasionally, as in King Creon's aria and Tiresias' aria, the music and the worlds blended beautifully. But a few bright moments don't let to getting to the emotional end we expect with Antigone. Le Gendre uses a variety of different effects in her small chamber ensemble, but in the end the tone of the piece is just edgy and angular; there is little flow in the music to match the poetry of the story. I might have felt assaulted, but honesty, in the end I felt nothing.


Erica Jeal of the Guardian gave a similar (shorter) review.
Richard Morrison of the TimesOn was even more harsh.
Rupert Christiansen at the Telegraph adds his dirt to the grave of this performance.

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