Sophocles’ trilogy of Theban plays, charting the fall of Oedipus and his doomed offspring, carry their fair share of cultural baggage. They are now more historical documents than dramas, presenting a challenge to modern adapters seeking to inject them with new life, yet the turmoil and tragedy of Oedipus’s famous fate continues to fascinate and inspire.
Julian Anderson’s first opera seizes on this material and gives it a shake, achieving an impressively fresh rendering of this trio of tragedies. Anderson and librettist Frank McGuiness have condensed and reshuffled Sophocles’ three plays, transforming them into three swift acts and disrupting their chronology. First, under the subtitle “Past”, we see the familiar revelations of Oedipus the King, before being catapulted into the “Future” in the second act to witness Antigone’s destruction at the hands of Creon. Finally, the action rewinds to the “Present” and Oedipus’s death at Colonus, closing on an anguished note of lamentation from the daughter soon destined to come to her own bitter end.
Dramaturgically, the episode at Colonus offers a much more satisfying conclusion than that of Antigone, allowing the action to end on a shattering howl of grief. But beyond this dramatic effect, Anderson and McGuiness’s rearrangement of chronology offers an intriguing examination of fate, at times enhancing and at others unsettling the inexorability of events. Themes and emotions periodically resurface, creating the impression less of a tragic slide to destruction than of a viciously repeating cycle. Score and libretto also contain interesting internal tensions, the tussle of voice and music reflecting a struggle throughout between will and destiny.
Despite distinct resonances across the acts, Pierre Audi’s production strikingly shifts mood for each episode of the trilogy. The curtain first rises on a classical scene, the white-draped bodies of the chorus held still like statues against Tom Pye’s simple but imposing stone-grey design. White gives way to black in the tense second act, as a militaristic state has been established under Peter Hoare’s Creon (as smoothly persuasive in voice as in politics), its discipline outlined in the sharply uniform movements of its subjects. Colonus, in the final scene, is an other-worldly wasteland, eerily echoing with the disembodied voices of the chorus – for whom Anderson has written by far the strongest part.
It is in its narrative economy, however, that Thebans disappoints. Anderson and McGuiness have hacked away plenty of dead wood from Sophocles’ tragedies, but with it too has gone some of the essential foliage. Shorn down to its bare essentials, the plot loses any prelude to tragedy, failing to forge a connection with the protagonists before their fortunes violently plummet. In the succinct second act especially, character is sacrificed to atmosphere, with Antigone dead before we are offered any opportunity to feel her misfortunes. McGuiness’s libretto, meanwhile, is direct to the point of bluntness in its trimming of Sophocles.
Anderson’s score cannot quite compensate for these gaps in character, rarely communicating the full tragedy and despair of Oedipus’s downfall. It is better instead at conveying unease, be it through the disquieting bass tone of Tiresias’s prophecies or the mounting tension of the second act. Only in the closing moments, as Julia Sporsén’s bereft Antigone devastatingly grieves for her father, does the impact of events finally land its punch – by which time, it is too late.