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Marc-Anthony TURNAGE (b.1960)
Greek - an opera in one act (1987)
Quentin Hayes (bass): Eddie
Richard Suart (bass): Dad, Café Manager, Chief of Police;
Fiona Kimm (mezzo): Wife, Doreen, Waitress 1, Sphinx 2;
Helen Charnock (sop): Mum, Waitress 2, Sphinx 1;
Greek Ensemble directed by Richard Bernas
Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London, November 1992
DECCA 473 426-2 [78.23]


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Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek (to a libretto by Steven Berkoff using his own story ‘Oedipus-in-the-east-end’) won two awards and a standing ovation at its premiere in Munich in 1988. It was recorded for the enterprising Argo label and appeared in 1994 with a warning on the front ‘This opera contains bad language" and so it does, quite a good deal of it too. Now however in this newly packaged product there is no warning and it comes in a plain purple wrapper soberly marked ‘The British Music Collection’ with a little picture of Turnage on the front, and now under the ‘safe’ umbrella of the ever solid Decca company. So it seems that the opera has slipped surreptitiously into the ‘classic category’ without anyone noticing. Now retailing at about £10 the presentation is shorn of its rehearsal photographs, the text is fully given, but rather more microscopically, and the booklet notes now lack a synopsis.

Even so, we should be proud that this extraordinary work is available again. I write this having recently had a surfeit of Turnage over a weekend devoted to his music culminating, as far as Radio 3 was concerned, in a live performance of this opera. Time has mellowed the stage performance I feel, so the roughness of the original is more keenly felt on this recording, which, like all great performances, takes risks. There is a shocking freshness about it, which still registers as female voices stridently chime out four letter words.

Yet, for me some problems have not gone away and I will share them. To my ears the libretto’s cockney has become something of a problem. It’s partly that twisted vowels and glottal stops don’t sit comfortably on classically trained voices. The cast do wonders, but can’t avoid reverting to Home Counties whenever an awkward note needs to be genuinely sung. It’s also hard to know how the singers who have been trying very hard at their ‘gor-blimeys’ and their ‘’ere we goes’ should enunciate Berkoff’s perplexing side-lurches, such as "confess my dear, the quandary that doth crease your brow" and the like. At the start even, Eddie/Oedipus tells us that he was "spawned in a Tuffnell Park that’s no more than a stone’s throw from the Angel, a monkey’s fart from Tottenham or a bolt of phlegm from Stamford Hill. It’s cesspit, right …" Sorry to be a pedant but, and I acknowledge that my London geography is possibly a little more hazy these days, these places are quite some way apart. Thatcher’s Britain forms the backdrop to the opera’s plot, but its depiction is weakened by these not quite accurately observed moments. Also Theban plagues, which run through the events, seem oddly out of place with shouting policemen and football hooligans.

The skewed focus does not diminish the directness and ingenuity of Turnage’s idiom, which for all its echoes of Weill and rock, its obvious roots in Stravinsky, centres on moody, often beautiful lyricism as in the love aria of Act 2. Another influence, particularly in the harp and percussion sounds, is surely Britten, more particularly the Britten of the Church Parables. The opera’s sonorities are precise and memorable. It has, in the crucial scenes, a gravity that can rise to eloquence, even nobility.

The performances can hardly be bettered but the place of this opera in the repertoire will depend on whether it is possible for audiences to reconcile the cockney with the sophisticated, the working class background with the intellectualism. The recording incidentally pitches the opera at you hot and strong.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Tony Haywood

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