Opera Review

GREEK – Mark Anthony Turnage, RNCM, 31st March 2000

The Royal Northern College of Music continues to deliver an impressive array of contemporary music events. Undoubtedly one of the best was the recent production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Greek in the stylish Brown Shipley Theatre. Playing to a packed house on each of its three performances, this extraordinary work restored my faith in contemporary opera and its possibilities. As a composer, I have not always been convinced of the relevance of opera in spite of my interest in the human voice and music theatre. However, in Greek, Mark-Anthony Turnage has created a hugely satisfying work of contemporary opera.

Hans Werner Henze commissioned Greek - from a twenty-five year old Turnage - for the first Munich Biennale Festival in 1988. In the intervening twelve years, it has won three awards and has progressed from Munich to the Edinburgh Festival, The English National Opera and BBC television. It will continue to attract attention as new productions are planned in three continents.

The libretto was adapted by Turnage and his director Jonathan Moore from Steven Berkoff’s successful translation of the Oedipus myth into the Thatcherite East End of London. “Racism, violence and mass unemployment appear as metaphors for the plague that afflicts London, and form the background of the story of Eddy.”

The opera opens on a bleak stage with two huge grey blocks Eddy is contemplating the boozy, crass nightlife of the East End, he is bored and wants more from life. We meet his family, stuck in a familiar rut of toasty breakfasts and nagging; his Dad informs him that a fortune-teller once told them that Eddy would murder his father and marry his mother. Eddy decides he has had enough and leaves home: the Oedipus myth unfolds…

This was a fine production of an exciting and dramatic work. There were terrific performances from the assembled cast of post-graduate RNCM singing students, notably Daniel Broad (baritone) as Eddy whose voice and presentation belied his years. Shelly Coulter-Smith (mezzo soprano) was equally convincing in each of her four characters; her voice is warm and solid and her diction always clear. One of the highlights was the duet of the Sphinxes, where Sarah Tynan and the aforementioned Coulter-Smith were gusty, sexy and very evil!

The RNCM Opera Ensemble, conducted by Clark Rundell - Director of contemporary music at the RNCM – gave a tight, confident performance. Turnage’s score is ingenious, carefully setting a number of musical styles against his own; we heard snatches of jazz, blues and pop. This is a colourful score with the ensemble always supporting the vocal lines. The minimal set and lighting by Ian Sommerville is also worthy of praise; the huge grey blocks transformed the set at regular intervals, cleverly echoing the sentiment of the story.

The Royal Northern College of Music is certainly setting standards of excellence with productions such as this. If the standard of musicianship and vocal performances in this production is anything to go by the future of contemporary music performance is indeed bright.

Ailís Ní Ríain

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