Arcola Theatre, London – until 10 August 2018
Guest reviewer: Charlotte Valori
Prometheus stole fire from the gods in order to ensure human progress, and met with a grisly eternal punishment as a reward: Zeus’ eagle devouring his liver daily. Keith Burstein’s new opera The Prometheus Revolution attempts to engage with this Greek myth through a story of modern-day capitalism and revolt.
Peter (Alex Haigh) redirects two trillion pounds from the City to the Prometheus Peace Movement, revivifying a socially rebellious organisation which he founded, but left to become a successful banker or deep undercover rebel agent: his erstwhile partner in the Prometheus Movement, Aaron (Robert Garland), can’t be sure which, as the (mainly sexual) tensions of their youth threaten to break the Movement apart just as civil war finally gets going.
Fulham Opera field a dazzlingly strong young cast to give Burstein’s opera its world premiere; singing is lyrical and compelling throughout, piano accompaniment from Ben Woodward richly expressive, direction from Sophie Gilpin clear and clever. Sunny Smith’s pared-down, efficient design uses a grid of steel ropes on a platform in the centre of the playing space to suggest the glass and steel of a City office, or a prison cell; the addition of blinds, swags or banners suggests meeting rooms, hotel balconies and Movement HQ.
However, despite music, design and direction all being on point, The Prometheus Revolution is a severe test of performance, and ultimately only the strength, charm and skill of Fulham Opera’s company carries us through this piece. The opera is unfortunately stymied by its weak, derivative and repetitive libretto, which loses sight of its myth early on: the point of Prometheus’ rebellion was the foundation of human technology, a revolutionary achievement enhancing life for billions and possibly worth an eternity of pain for one. We never hear of Peter’s trillions accomplishing anything useful or tangible for anybody. Nor is his punishment permanent (a quick death, stabbed by a spurned lover and a political rival).
This is an opera which constantly tells you what it is doing without ever actually doing it, nor showing you why it needs doing. Though we get endless sloganising about peace, love, truth, equality and so on, we never quite understand what the Movement truly entails. It certainly includes universal love, mainly focused in Peter: everyone (it seems) is passionately jealous of Peter’s sexual favours, and his relationship history is trotted endlessly around the stage like a tired beach pony. Nor can we perceive what social evil they are fighting, beyond generalised comments about the State not respecting the individual. The libretto lurches from cliché to cliché, repeating characters’ names endlessly without establishing any credible inner life, indeed repeating itself generally. Gender dynamics are exceptionally dated, with men making all key decisions while women coo admiringly, smoulder tactically or plot jealous revenge. The plot is so dense that no action can find any emotional context, bashing ever onward with all the subtlety of handwritten capitals in thick black permanent pen, despite a cast who can act their socks off and cope magnificently with its leanest opportunities for expression, even when Burstein (regularly) sets text of one mood to music of quite another. Caroline Carragher’s Wona is outstanding; James Schouten’s Des, brilliantly vivid; Nick Dwyer’s oily Zapruder, eye-catchingly charismatic. Burstein’s inconsistent, lumpily quote-laden score (the ghost of “Nessun Dorma” becoming ever more curiously insistent as we reach the underwhelming finale) doesn’t honestly deserve them.
Fulham Opera’s upcoming Grimeborn Lucia di Lammermoor (already sold out) is the hotter ticket. But what they achieve with this piece is seriously impressive, given its flaws.
~ CHARLOTTE VALORI
Presented by Fulham Opera
At the Arcola Theatre, Dalston as part of Grimeborn 2018 until 10 August
Box office: 020 7503 1646 or online here