Thebans, Coliseum, opera review: A viscerally powerful production from Pierre Audi


As a schoolboy, Julian Anderson dreamed of making the characters in Sophocles’ Theban trilogy sing.

Now, with the aid of an aphoristic libretto from Frank McGuinness and a viscerally powerful production by Pierre Audi, he has done so.

As the curtain rises on Tom Pye’s severely rectilinear set, the opera’s musical qualities immediately become apparent: the writing for the chorus is translucent, tonally subtle, and richly polyphonic, while the orchestra, with conductor Edward Gardner goading the heavy percussion and extracting from the woodwind a skittering Stravinskyan delicacy, paints ever-changing pictures in the sky.

It’s all earth, air, fire - and blood.

But with Roland Wood (Oedipus) battling a virus, momentum on the first night only sparked with Christopher Ainslie’s lovely countertenor narrative as the Messenger, followed by the blinded king’s lament; Matthew Best’s grotesque bisexual Tiresias and Susan Bickley’s commanding Jocasta did not seem dramatically plugged-in.

It is Peter Hoare’s brilliantly-sung Creon who dominates the Antigone tragedy (starring the excellent Julia Sporsen), and the conclusion in which Oedipus finds immortality lifts off into the empyrean in a blaze of orchestral glory.

Since McGuinness’s libretto blurs the moral dilemmas of both Oedipus and Creon, their respective tragedies are hard to empathise with. But I suspect if Anderson could rework those arioso sections which seem willed rather than felt, this opera might really fly.