nationLast night Boston Lyric Opera opened its Opera Annex run of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek at the Emerson Paramount Center. The two-act setting, based on Steven Berkoff’s play of the same title, recasts the story of the Theban prince, Œdipus, into East End London of the 1970s and 1980s. Edgy and cinematic, this is operatic agitprop. Continuing through Sunday afternoon.
The story of Œdipus is timeless. In Antiquity it is a political parable of hubris in Thebes, safely displaced from Athens so the Athenian audience could absorb the message. It is a mystery, asking ‘Who am I?” and “Where did I come from?” It is a detective story, an archetypal whodunit murder mystery. Modern takes on the tragedy emphasize all of these aspects, although rarely taking all together.
Berkoff/Turnage come close. Politics here are not the dynastic ones of ancient Greece. Mother Maggie may preside from her canvas on the back wall, but the focus is on politics in the streets during Thatcherite Britain while the family drama concerns two intertwined lower-class families. Aspiration is to become a burgeoning bourgeois businessman. It is an imperfect fit (in the vein of Sartre’s Les mouches): Greek tragedy captures some concerns of this Winter of Discontent, but not all. Missing were questions of race which made “My Beautiful Laundrette” such a powerful artistic response to the same historical moment. We did get a surfeit of classicist Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” in the staged violence here, uncomfortably so.
Changing Œdipus (“lame-foot”) to Eddy conjures ideas of loss of control, being caught in the press and whirl of events. Arguably Œdipus was so trapped, thanks to the machinations of ancient Greece’s polytheistic pantheon. But what holds this latter-day, secular age conflator of kith and kin? Trapped by class and upbringing, for Eddy violence is a reflex and a recourse, even as he professes his preference for love in song.
Sophocles’ Œdipus Tyrannos creates and interrogates notions of hermeneutic communities. Who are Turnage’s interpreters? In this staging the cast, under the stage direction of Sam Helfrich and set designer John Conklin, with costumes by Nancy Leary, lighting by Chris Hudacs, and conducting by Andrew Bisantz, present an intergenerational memorialization of another world and time, for a populated Paramount audience spanning all age ranges. For all that, Turnage/Berkoff would have been banned in Boston in days gone by, for language and sexual content if not also graphic violence. There is not clear demarcation of regular and musical time; the house opens and already we enter into a screening of the 1957 W. B. Yeats “Oedipus Rex” directed by Tyrone Guthrie (masks; classicizing costumes; stilted acting). This conceit captured the truth that there is no audience wholly ignorant of Œdipus.
This cast has four singers and four actors, covering the eleven roles. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth inhabits the role of Eddy. The singing is good with clean diction and great projection; the accent phases in and out of the East End but was more successful than others. Costuming ranged from working-poor in the first act to a wardrobe worthy of Tony Soprano in the second, marking his success in business and portraying him just as tony as Tony. Caroline Worra (soprano) covers roles of Eddy’s Mum, a waitress, and half of the Sphinx. She runs the gamut from “Coronation Street” to suburban sexy; it must be a sign of her success in these guises that she made me awkwardly uncomfortable as Mum and Sphinx. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider sang Eddy’s Sister, Waitress/Eddy’s Wife, and the other half of the Sphinx. As Sister, she is little more than a third of the familial chorus; the transition from Waitress to Wife happens with the suddenness of simulated copulation at first sight. As Sphinx she joins Worra in sexy as imagined by Marks & Spencer. Christopher Burchett (baritone) sang the roles of Eddy’s Dad, the Café Manager, and the Chief of Police. A thwarted paterfamilias, he exudes despair and seething rage; the mismanaged anger carries over to the café and costs him his life in a not-barroom brawl. At least his official capacity legitimizes the short fuse and physical fisticuffs. Burchett, like Farnsworth, lost himself in his roles, granting the characters a vivid presence in performance. Worra made the best of difficult roles where most of the drama is unsung, unspoken, repressed; perhaps the switch-flipping suddenness of her transformation into Sphinx is part of the shock of that scene. As for Crider, the performance was strong but the roles are utterly enigmatic, seemingly constrained to two-dimensions despite the performer.
The opera opens at a metaphoric crossroads. “How will our Eddy fare?” gives way to “Maggie is our hope.” Later we hear the axiomatic “Fate makes us play the roles we’re cast.” Grasping at meaning, seeking salvation, this trio tries to escape their economic fate. They live close to the knives, and pummeling takes multiple forms: “I never realized words can kill.” “So can looks.” Batons and riot shields inflict corporeal pain, but it is Eddy’s fists that commit the murder (on-stage, not off).
Musically, this work is successful and not. Closer to a chamber opera than a grand tragedy, in the setting chosen by the librettist it resembles a film enchanté in the vein of Les Parapluies de Cherbourg except on the mean streets of London. It is effective, indeed powerful, in context but hard to excerpt. The orchestra (housed above the acting stage; singers could reference a video screen mounted to the front of the first balcony in the hall facing the stage to see the conductor) played tightly and many instrumentalists did double-duty as percussion team. The musical idiom may owe much to Tristan in its constant deferral—of melody as well as cadence. Rhythmically it is strong, as befits a tale of rioting in the streets. Resolution is desired more than granted; history moves on, and so does the music.
On the whole, I found this an oddly discomfiting show. The realistic violence was acutely, resonantly uncomfortable, as we witness a nation’s descent into madness. Berkoff and Turnage present a meditation on the force of words and on power as held by bit actors and national figures, as it flirts with typologies of power. Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth II are benign overseers from their framed canvases. For most of the play men wield the power of hand and fist; the brief episode of the Sphinx brings a reversal that is short-lived, reinforcing the hegemony of the rest. It is difficult to credit Eddy’s paeans to love at the end of both acts, given the preceding actions and context. “It’s love I feel, it’s love / What matter what form it takes, it’s love!” But it takes more than that an a resurrectory “Bollocks” to overthrow the incest taboo. John Lennon singing of love seems more credible than our Eddy.
One of the most powerful (mis-)readings of Œdipus is Sigmund Freud’s. We all crave the incestuous love of our mothers. Berkoff’s play only works in this post-Freudian landscape. More, it requires Freud’s disciple Lacan, who pushed further in exploring the power of the word and the Law of the Father. In this psychoanalytic frame, we see Eddy achieve his own identity and the “Bollocks” becomes a profound overthrow.
The opera ends with an Eddy very much alive, seemingly not blinded at all (for all that there is over-determination, there is a denial of narrative resolution too), singing his craving to return to the arms of his Mother/Wife: “Exit from paradise, entrance to heaven.” This opera finds the answer in a canvas once owned by Jacques Lacan—then only shown to a select few: Courbet’s L’origine du monde, 1866. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.