One of opera’s founding myths is that its birth in the early 1600s was an attempt to recreate the bygone virtues of Greek drama. The myth may be questionable, but there’s no doubt about the intent of last night’s ENO world première of Julian Anderson’s Thebans, a bold attempt at condensing Sophocles’ three Theban plays into a single opera. The result is a powerful piece of theatre which drags the audience into the story of Oedipus’ horrific downfall and death, with its ensuing civil war.

Chorus in Act I © Tristram Kenton
Chorus in Act I
© Tristram Kenton

A defining feature of Greek tragedy is its chorus, a cipher for the audience member – slightly aloof from events and commenting on them. In Thebans, Anderson’s choral writing excels. At moments of crisis – the opening scene in which Thebes is wracked by plague, the suicide of Oedipus’ wife/mother Jocasta, the death sentence on his daughter Antigone and many others – the chorus hits immense levels of authority. I was entranced, moved, my emotions utterly in thrall to the potency of the music.

In contrast, Anderson’s solo vocal and orchestral writing only gripped me intermittently, probably because of the limits of my musical training. Anderson uses a very, very wide musical vocabulary in terms of different intervals, harmonic construction and orchestral effects – a variety so wide that I’m not really capable of taking it all in. I found several of the individual effects to be powerful and some to have moving beauty, but much of the time, my ears searched in vain for a common thread.

Both director Pierre Audi and designer Tom Pye have been receiving great reviews on these pages, and this production is another one to add to them. Sets are abstract, with giant cage-like structures filled with rocks. Video projections are used sparingly and subtly, mainly to project versions of Oedipus’s face that shift so slowly as to be almost imperceptible. Costumes are timeless and imaginative, such as when part of the chorus depicts the henchmen of Creon’s evil rule – a combination of black shirt paramilitary gear and ancient Greek bronze helmets.

Julia Sporsén as Antigone, Roland Wood as Oedipus
Julia Sporsén as Antigone, Roland Wood as Oedipus
Some of the vocal performances were very strong. In Act II (Sophocles’ Antigone), Peter Hoare was outstanding as the despotic Creon, doomed by his own inflexibility. Hoare commands the whole of proceedings both with gesture and stage movement with a strong, flexible tenor voice – a transformation from Act I (Sophocles’ Oedipus the King), in which his voice was thinner and reedier, representing Creon’s weakness at that time, only able to wait and scheme. Roland Wood shrugged off a throat infection to give a powerful depiction of the king for whom the gods have reserved a tragic fate from birth. Susan Bickley produced plenty of impact as Jocasta.

That’s a long list of good components, and for Act I, they came together into a satisfying whole. The drama of the story lies in the events leading up to Oedipus discovering that the source of evil in Thebes is Oedipus himself; I was completely absorbed by the combination of staging, great acting and that amazing choral music. The story of Act II – in which Creon condemns Antigone to death for seeking to give her rebellious brother a decent burial – wasn’t quite as engaging, but Hoare’s superb performance, with decent support from Julia Sporsén as Antigone, brought it to life.

Peter Hoare as Creon with Act II Chorus © Tristram Kenton
Peter Hoare as Creon with Act II Chorus
© Tristram Kenton

For several reasons, however, I was disappointed by Act III (Oedipus in Colonus), which tells of the death of Oedipus. Anderson and librettist Frank McGuinness chose to reverse the order of the last two plays (the fratricidal conflict leading to the events of Antigone happens in the aftermath of Oedipus’ death). In the programme notes, Anderson gives a long statement of why: he sought to create a mystical experience in the woods of Colonus in a way that he felt could only be placed at the end of the work. It didn’t work for me: I felt no great sense of either mysticism or closure. The chorus, such a powerful stage presence in Acts I and II, was placed off stage in Act III, limiting their impact. I didn’t feel the intended mysticism in the music and the landscape of blasted trees seemed to relate more to an apocalyptic post-war episode (from Antigone, perhaps) than to a sacred, magical place in the safe haven of Theseus’s kingdom. Sophocles’ blatant Athenian propaganda – Theseus is the founder of Athens, and the secrets that the dying Oedipus imparts to him will enable his city to flourish – sits oddly with the rest of the story.

I have relatively few preconceptions about how updating of Greek tragedy should work, but here’s one: I think it’s essential that the work must close with an element of catharsis; that the audience should leave feeling something more than “that was all a very horrifying story”. For me, the ending of Thebans fell flat, leaving me disappointed rather than uplifted.

Thebans is an incredibly ambitious project, and for its first hour and a half, I thought those ambitions were achieved with aplomb. In particular, Anderson’s choral writing,  some of the most sophisticated I’ve ever heard in opera, totally succeeded in enhancing the corrosive atmosphere of Sophocles’ plays – overlaid on an intelligent libretto by McGuinness and excellent staging by Audi. The disappointment of the last act overshadows my huge enjoyment of the first two, and it's those two acts that I hope to keep at the front of my memory.