SPOILER ALERT! Anthropocene's reception far from icy...
Updated: Jul 14, 2019
Last night saw the world premiere of Scottish composer Stuart MacRae and English librettist Louise Welsh's gripping psychological story of betrayal, domination and sacrifice, Anthropocene. Having already three operas under their belt; Remembrance Day (2008), Ghost Patrol (2011), and The Devil Inside (2015), we sat eagerly in the Theatre Royal as we awaited curtain up on the duos fourth addition to the collection.
MacRae's orchestral writing immediately impressed, perhaps showcasing some of the most imaginative and colourful writing to be found on the contemporary stage. Various orchestral effects such as the use of bowed vibraphone, extended techniques for strings and even at one stage a collection of ball bearings propelled around a ceramic bowl in the percussion, award the opera an inherently icy and cinematic sound. In our pre-production interview, MacRae cited that one of the first decisions he made was to exclude any pre-recorded field recordings from the score, instead opting to produce all of the sounds of the arctic winter within the live orchestra! This feature has certainly proved to be one of the new opera's greatest and most alluring assets.
Complementary to the orchestration was MacRae's masterful patchwork approach to musical tonality and character, which subtly drew our attention to the changeable emotions of each of the characters on stage. Even without the visual aspect of the opera's staging, with each character showcasing their own individual manner of expression, it appeared that there would never be any difficulty distinguishing between each character on a purely sonic basis. This being said however, MacRae's approach to the setting of the text, with an angular and dramatic intensity present in the recitative from the very start, is perhaps often used at the expense of having anywhere to push to dramatically in the later more intense scenes of the opera. This fact alone may divide opinion, particularly within student circles who find themselves avid consumers of literature/cinema of the psychological thriller kind, which relies almost entirely on the gradual accumulation of tension. Paula Hawkins' 'The Girl on the Train', recently adapted for the screen with Emily Blunt, springs to mind!
"MacRae's masterful patchwork approach to musical tonality and character... subtly drew our attention to the changeable emotions of each of the characters on stage".
To complement MacRae's imaginative score though was acclaimed novelist Louise Welsh's well-crafted libretto which, although often very literal and descriptive, certainly had the audience pining for its conclusion. In particular, the frustration an audience may feel when in possession of knowledge of a character's actions yet to be discovered by the others on stage was expertly handled and exploited throughout, a storytelling technique which seems to have recently brought novel-reading back into teen culture by writers such as Dan Brown and Eric Van Lustbader. Furthermore, the manner in which Welsh had reflected MacRae's idea that each character must find their own voice in the group was particularly ingenious, which was communicated just as effectively with the words as in the music. The inherent unity of Anthropocene's libretto with its musical score alone concretes this duo as a force to be reckoned with!
Director Matthew Richardson and Zoe Spurr's lighting design makes for powerful effect in some of the more dramatic scenes of the opera, particularly in the second and third acts. The use of almost blinding whiteness, both in the lighting set-up and in Samal Black's staging and costume design, only intensified the icy, cold aesthetic of MacRae's score - another stroke of genius perhaps!. This was most evident (SPOILER ALERT!) when the whiteness in turn seemed to amplify the presence of the blood in the closing minutes of the opera. Having said that, some of the more ridiculous and jarring features of Richardson's staging such as the
character of Ice's initial emergence from the ice block on stage after being hacked free by an oversized axe definitely wielded some unwanted humorous effect.
"The inherent unity of Anthropocene's libretto with its musical score alone concretes this duo as a force to be reckoned with".
Despite this, Scottish Opera's veteran conductor Stuart Stratford commands an impressive palette of colours and the vocal performances are of a high standard throughout. In particular. Jennifer France as Ice and Jeni Bern as Professor Prentice impress with a stunning duet over a passacaglia theme for orchestra expertly constructed by MacRae in the second act.
All in all, an exhilarating and brainy performance thrill-seekers should not resist!
More production photographs below Credit © James Glossop: