Scottish Opera: Anthropocene9:33, 28th January 2019
Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Review by Kenneth Walton
11 years ago, when Scottish Opera launched its Five:15 project – an initiative aimed at stimulating new opera composition in Scotland – it began with a series of embryonic miniatures geared at testing the potential of the various composer-writer partnerships. From the outset, the company promised a future moment when the project would result in a brand new full-scale opera.
That promise has now been realised with the unveiling of Anthropocene, a tense and riveting 3-Act thriller set in the icy wastes of Greenland by composer Stuart MacRae and novelist/librettist Louise Welsh. Their partnership has been nurtured in a progressive series of Scottish Opera projects, the fruits of which are a work that ticks every box in terms of defining what modern opera should be about if it is to honour tradition, yet say something potent and new.
The cast are captive to a sudden Arctic super-freeze in which their ship, the Anthropocene, is immobilised. To this entrapped micro-society is added the mysterious body in the ice, coming to life as a young woman (Ice) whose presence rocks the boat, so to speak. True personalities emerge, leading to sabotage, murder and violent retribution, all of which is viscerally exposed in Matthew Richardson’s fast-action production set amid the all-encompassing whiteness and simple realism of Samal Blak’s wintry sets.
Welsh’s libretto employs a pithiness that gives instant colour to the characters. Mark Le Brocq, as the expedition leader and sponsor Harry King, cuts a maniacal figure, ruthlessly egocentric as expressed through MacRae’s hi-octane tenor writing. Around him are the pitiable Miles (Benedict Nelson), a mediocre journalist desperate for a scoop, Paul Whelan and Anthony Gregory as the dark-hued crew members Captain Ross and Vasco, and Charles Gadd as the reasoning Charles.
But it is within the female roles that exciting things happen. Jennifer France, as the ‘resurrected’ Ice, meets the sustained high-set vocal challenge with mesmerising assurance, while the derring-do of Sarah Champion’s Daisy neatly complement’s Jeni Bern’s rations Professor Prentice.
The crowning glory, though, is MacRae’s brilliantly aligned score, free and easy in style, rich in dramatic thrust, but always an essential driving force in a work that surely embodies the spirit of good 21st-century opera. The opening performance, under conductor Stuart Stratford, had its nervous moments orchestrally, but never so much as to detract from the thrill of this alluring creation.
Performances will take place between 31 Jan and 2 Feb at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, and between 7 and 9 February at Hackney Empire, London.