“The Holocene has ended. The Garden of Eden is no more. We have changed the world so much that scientists say we are in a new geological age: the Anthropocene, the age of humans.” It is a striking coincidence that Sir David Attenborough’s powerful words from Davos came in the same week as Scottish Opera’s Anthropocene received its world premiere in Glasgow. Changes in the ice at the poles receive ever more scientific scrutiny, predicting the serious effects of climate change which Attenborough flagged up to the world’s leaders. The new opera from composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh is set in the high Arctic on a research ship, King’s Anthropocene. The discovery of a body in the ice as the ship is about to turn homeward throws the expedition into confusion and the vessel becomes ice-bound as tensions mount and the temperature plummets.

Jeni Bern (Prentice), Paul Whelan (Ross), Mark Le Brocq (King) and Anthony Gregory (Vasco)
© James Glossop

MacRae and Welsh began their operatic collaboration with Remembrance Day, a product of Scottish Opera’s 2009 Five:15 project, and more recently a much acclaimed longer piece The Devil Inside in 2016. Anthropocene is their first full length opera, a real chiller which takes climate change as a context to examine the clashing egos involved aboard a small research ship with shocking reference to ancient rituals from another time.

The seven strong expedition team are led by Professor Prentice and her husband Charles (Jeni Bern and Stephen Gadd) and financed by Harry King (Mark le Brocq) who has brought his daughter Daisy (Sarah Champion) to photograph and journalist Miles (Benedict Nelson) along to record the triumphs of the voyage. Captain Ross (Paul Whelan) and crew Vasco (Anthony Gregory) complete the team which is about to turn for home with a stack of ancient ice samples when Charles discovers a body in the ice, cuts out its block and winches it aboard. We hear strange growling from the orchestra pit as the engines strain to move the vessel, but it is too late to leave because the sea has frozen.

Sarah Champion (Daisy), Stephen Gadd (Charles), Jeni Bern (Prentice) and Mark Le Brocq (Harry King)
© James Glossop

A show of northern lights is admired by all for their beauty, casting a spell of wonder but Vasco darkly warns that the Inuit consider the aurora souls of dead children dancing. Daisy gets close to the ice block and an eye swivels to look at her from within. The block is smashed, and Ice emerges, Jennifer France slowly stretching her limbs, a scientific impossibility of survival. The scientists are fascinated, the crew fearful and the journalist phones his editor, a brief humorous passage of light relief. Ice is barely communicative at first, but by the time she eventually reveals her terrible story at the end of the opera, things have already taken a gruesome turn.

MacRae’s wonderfully cinematic, turbulent score is shot through with tender moments of beauty, matched by a clear and often poetic libretto from Welsh. The orchestra under Stuart Stratford stoked up the tension with urgency in the strings and brass, with bass clarinet and contrabassoon creating sinister colours. A busy part for the harp (doubling as a handbell ringer in the storm scene) and a large and unusual percussion array, including ball bearings in a ceramic bowl, added much to the drama. The quieter moments were full of lyrical beauty, like the aurora music and the ensemble for women’s voices, as the Professor tries to coax Ice into speech and later joined by Daisy, a lovely trio in the final act. In a strongly sung ensemble with clear diction, Le Broc’s confident tenor shone as Harry King, as did Paul Whelan’s Ross more measured, abrupt phrases, while Jennifer France’s Ice was sky-high, ethereal and mysterious, a stunning tour de force.

Jennifer France (Ice)
© James Glossop

Samal Blak’s all-white stage design and utilitarian arctic clothing conjured a chilly scene, and director Matthew Richardson’s changing palette of white light created an unforgiving environment. While Kally Lloyd-Jones’s movement kept the interest, a full-length opera set in the wide northern spaces was crying out for a bigger visual canvas than the more chamber opera setting of white drapes and red hull bookends.

Welsh’s tale was initially gripping but garnered little real sympathy for her cast of flawed characters bent on their own agendas, although one could perhaps empathise slightly with Ice, happy in her white T-shirt in the midst of an arctic winter. The journey was spectacularly grisly, but the elements of climate change, character infighting and strange ritual did not quite coalesce into a satisfying whole.

New work from Scottish Opera is important and Anthropocene received a warm welcome in Glasgow. Musically, the opera demands repeated hearing with so much going on in the dense score, including the musical interludes for the short scene changes.