Touring – reviewed at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Anthropocene, from Scottish Opera at the King’s, is a work that is constantly shifting its ground both dramatically and musically; while it is absorbing it never entirely solidifies.
A new opera is always going to be a hard sell, but Scottish Opera’s production does appear at first to chime with contemporary concerns.
The title echoes the suggested term for the present geological period, and promises a meditation on climate change. However, while the story is set on a ship in the Arctic conducting research into melting ice caps, a strange discovery immediately takes us into the territory of The Thing From Another World.
This proves to be another false step, as what follows is more like a determinedly epic take on human greed and nature, leavened with dashes of The Ancient Mariner.
This defiant strangeness is no bad thing, and Louise Welsh’s libretto is a largely engrossing mixture of the workaday and the portentous – although this combination is not always enhanced by the use of supertitles.
Stuart MacRae’s music, meanwhile, has some unforgiving lines to sing that are handled very well by the cast. The orchestral setting is another odd concoction. Romantic backgrounds verging on the lush are offset by insistent icy patterns and disquieting parping and burbling.
Conductor Stuart Stratford’s handling of the orchestra is authoritative, although at times the music’s crystalline swirls do sound a trifle muddy. No such problems with the singers. Jennifer Franco, as the mysterious figure from the ice, has a suitably spooky power and presence. Mark Le Brocq, as industrialist Harry King, has a convincing bluster; Sarah Champion gives his daughter Daisy a combination of selfishness and heart. Jeni Bern, as the expedition’s scientific leader Professor Prentice, also has an icy core.
The moments when the female performers are singing together are the highlights; the male performers, good as they are, suffer a little from there being too many characters with not enough to distinguish them.
Benedict Nelson’s Miles, moreover, is well sung and acted, but the cynical journalist, willing to sell his granny for a ‘scoop’, trying to get through to his editor on the telephone, is more like a 1940s Hollywood figure than something from the 21st century.
a surfeit of plot
It is this uneasy combination of elements that undermines the production. In the first half, very little seems to happen; in the second, there is suddenly a surfeit of plot, some of it far from plausible.
Samal Blak’s set, dominated by dazzling white, also seems like neither one thing or the other, being weirdly poised between sea and ship. Matthew Richardson’s direction is also rather staid, with peculiar longueurs and some distinctly odd choices regarding movement around the stage. Much of the visual element reinforces that relatively large budgets do not necessarily translate into similar levels of invention.
There is a nagging insistence to the work, however, that overcomes such prosaic staging. Even if it never convinces, it is always intriguing.