Rhinegold Photo credit: Jamie Simonds
The cast of The Silver Tassie

Claire Jackson

Review: The Silver Tassie

11:30, 13th November 2018

Music *****
Staging ****

Why isn’t Mark Anthony-Turnage’s The Silver Tassie performed more often? This was the question on many people’s lips as we digested the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s blistering concert semi-staging at the Barbican (10 November). The work was commissioned and premiered by English National Opera in 2000, with a revival in 2002, but has lain in wait since then – perhaps overshadowed by the success of Turnage’s subsequent opera Anna Nicole (premiered by the Royal Opera House in 2011; revived in 2014). The Silver Tassie – an adaptation of Sean O’Casey’s play (1928) – tells the story of Harry, who returns to his native Ireland from the trenches in a wheelchair. Once a football-playing, fun-loving ‘lad’ who is popular among his peers, Harry is left shattered and alone.

The deconstruction of traditional masculine ideals and underlying anti-war rhetoric within The Silver Tassie fitted in neatly with the BBCSO’s Total Immersion weekend In Remembrance: World War 1. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth teased out Turnage’s colourful and complex score; a musical collage that weaves football chants, Auld Lang Syne – a reference to Robert Burns, whose words inspire the opera’s title (‘Oh bring to me a pint of wine, and fill it in a silver tassie’) – and Bernsteinish emblems, all meticulously performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Amanda Holden’s taut libretto shapes the story into four acts – Home, War, Hospital, Dance – and Turnage uses this as the basis for a four-movement symphonic shape. After the exposition, which introduces the characters, the second movement (‘War’) brings in male-voice and boys’ choruses. The BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group were outstanding, while The Croucher (Brindley Sherratt, flown in from Zurich at a moment’s notice) was suitably ominous. A scherzo macabre third act takes us to the hospital, and Harry’s rapid demise. Ashley Riches handled the challenging role well, capturing the bleak reality of a soldier’s post-war existence. We are then transported to the football club for the final act, the dance, where Harry realises Jessie (the luminous Louise Alder), his pre-war girlfriend, has left him for his best friend.

Concert stagings are always difficult for singers: they are generally one-off events and, due to time constraints, most soloists stay ‘on the book’ (as in this case), making it difficult to utilise props adequately. Kenneth Richardson’s staging featured football scarfs, a ukulele, prayer book, vintage wheelchair and the titular cup, as well as simple stencilled light projections of balloons and flowers to transform the stage into the dance hall. These generally worked well, particularly the crystal bowl that was ceremoniously smashed in Act 1 (and magically disappeared into nothing within minutes). The semi-staging brought other practical difficulties, too, having the vast orchestra (including brilliant saxophone section) on stage meant that the singers needed head mics to be heard above the occasionally over-powering textures. But that really didn’t detract from a remarkable performance that has whetted appetites for a fully staged production.

The Silver Tassie was broadcast live from the Barbican Hall for Opera on 3, presented by Andrew McGregor, and is available via BBC Sounds.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00013zc

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