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S & H Opera Review

Turnage: The Silver Tassie, ENO, 26th June 2002 (MB)


When Seen & Heard reviewed the original production of The Silver Tassie in February 2000 it was suggested a revival would not be long in coming. ENO’s final opera of its Summer 2002 season duly revived this award-winning production, directed by Bill Bryden, and it is still strikingly powerful, both visually and musically. The concurrent release on ENO’s own label of a recording from the 2000 season gives us, somewhat uniquely, the opportunity to reappraise the work in the context of original and revived performances, with a cast largely unchanged, except in one important respect.

Whilst the original performance was never really ‘the most important night in English opera since the première of Peter Grimes’ (Norman Lebrecht) The Silver Tassie still packs a punch. However, whether this is an opera in the fullest sense of the word is open for interpretation; its form is more symphonic than operatic and Turnage breaches, or blurs, the boundaries of the two by naming each Act, (echt movement) – ‘Home’, ‘War’, Hospital’ and ‘Dance’. Moreover, there are moments (such as the Act II soldier’s chorus) which are more suggestive of oratorio: indeed, Act II is strikingly similar in mood to Tippett’s A Child of Our Time. What also fractures this work’s ability to be termed ‘opera’ is the alarming imbalance between orchestra and voice. Sat in an almost ideal position on press night (in fact, next to the composer!), and in a direct line from the conductor, one might have expected to have heard much more of the vocal line than being sat in the usual press seats (at the end of aisles, left or right). Not so. Voices strained to rise above the orchestra, and in some cases, notably during Act IV, were entirely masked by the orchestral sound. In part, the conductor, Paul Daniel, was to blame for being so unresponsive in securing an ideal balance between mezzo forte and mezzo piano (often we were always at extremes of balance), and in part it was a problem with singers whose diction was less than focussed, and less than precise. Worst of all was the usually breathtaking Vivian Tierney (a formidable Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) as Mrs Foran who consistently under-projected, and consistently muffled her tone. Indeed, taken as a whole the male voices were much more effective than the female – with neither Susan Parry (as Susie) nor Alison Roddy (as Jessie) quite expressive enough.

Garry Magee, as Harry Heegan, lacks the magnetism of Gerald Finley who sang the role in 2000, and who is captured so magnificently on the new discs. Magee’s sometimes light weight baritone doesn’t always capture the vulnerability of this character, almost vital in Act III where we see him confined to a wheelchair and paralysed form the waist down. Occasionally he struggled in the upper range and notes were sometimes forced, but what he lacks in terms of clear diction he makes up for in the power of his stage presence and acting. David Kempster, reviving his original role of Teddy, is charismatic and steady of voice, and brings a genuine terror to the abusive husband and loyal friend. Blind by Act III Teddy assumes a Gloucester-like role, almost as if blindness has forced him to reappraise the weaker elements of his character.

The most visually and musically astonishing act of this opera is Act II where we are at the front, close to a Red Cross station in November 1915. Turnage turns this act into a broad paced adagio, almost like a lament. Memories of Tippett, even Purcell, are not entirely banished, but it is by some distance the most moving and profound music of the opera. Here, the ENO orchestra played with sublime intensity, from curdling low brass and deeply sonorous string tone. Almost deafening percussion gave flesh to the firepower of battle. Dominating the act is The Croucher, a prophet of doom, sung magnificently by the bass Gerard O’Connor. He is every bit the equal of Gwynne Howell, who sang in the original production, producing notes from the bottom of the register which project as fully as one could wish for. More than that, he brings utter understanding to the irony of the Old Testament words he quotes. Although musically the act retains a shadowy, opaqueness of sound fully reflective of the darkness of war Turnage masterfully uses the range of the voice to add substance. The contrast between the deep bass of The Croucher and the high, unbroken voices of the stretcher-bearers – sung by boys in battle garb – is as shocking as it is effective. Again, the musical comparison is less with any opera and more with a symphony – in this case, Shostakovich’s Thirteenth.

William Dudley’s designs range from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Again, it is Act II which astonishes most. Utilising the depth of the ENO stage, he places a vast mortar in the foreground (in Act I it appears in the background cloaked in an army of soldiers) and uses as a backdrop a vivid montage of trenches and mud-lashed landscapes to bring to life the killing fields of Passchendale. The Croucher sits astride the mortar, clothed beneath a vast cloak, the soldiers sat, or stood, wearily around the stage. Only as battle starts, and the act ends, do the soldiers come to the fore of thee stage, guns aimed at the audience – a terrifying moment, made more so by the flashes of light depicting gun fire and the blinding brightness of two left-and-right placed lights which whiten, then plunge the auditorium into darkness.

Elsewhere the staging is not spectacular – neither the simplicity of the Heegan’s front room, nor the final act’s ‘Dance’ are particularly memorable. The Act III hospital scene accurately depicts the clinical setting in all its tawdriness and post-Victorian barrenness (even going as far to place numbers above the beds, by which the wounded were only known). Lighting, by Nick Moran, ranges from the spectacular to the mundane. Costumes are echt period.

It has been argued that The Silver Tassie works best on CD, rather than in the opera house. Certainly, the balance of the voices is more successfully achieved on disc than it is live, although in neither medium is the orchestra particularly ‘tamed’. However, the opera can be a spectacular visual feast, and despite the fact so much of the text was obscured by the orchestra, more than is usual, in fact, it does not present the argument for surtitles any more persuasively than past ENO productions may or may not have done. Surtitles remain a contentious issue often detracting from the on-stage action; in the case of The Silver Tassie this would have been precisely the problem. In base terms, ‘the words can be heard because they can be seen’.

Marc Bridle

The Silver Tassie is available on ENO Alive (record No. 001) on two discs priced at £11.99. It can be ordered from


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