Mark-Anthony Turnage’s masterly opera The Silver Tassie, last heard in 2002, made a welcome return as the centrepiece of London’s Barbican Armistice remembrance series, its power to move undimmed and the great arc of its hugely ambitious score vivid in all its clamorous beauty.

Ashley Riches and Louise Alder © BBC | Jamie Simonds
Ashley Riches and Louise Alder
© BBC | Jamie Simonds

The piece works brilliantly on so many levels: Sean O’Casey’s play of the same name gives it a dramatic structure that Turnage enhances by conceiving the piece as a monumental symphony, with its movements linked by turbulent, Brittenesque orchestral interludes. Librettist Amanda Holden’s clear and incisive text gives life to its everyday characters, while the Old Testament quotations scattered through the piece anchor it in a profound reminder that the tragedy of war is not some invention of the machine age but is as old as humankind.

When the piece was premiered by English National Opera in 2000, Gerald Finley memorably created the central character of Harry Heegan, the roistering young Irish footballer cruelly crippled in the trenches. This time Ashley Riches embued the role with a special pathos, bringing immaculate phrasing to Turnage’s uniquely beautiful vocal lines, his warm baritone hardening as his bleak future becomes plain to him. 

Benedict Nelson and Anthony Gregory © BBC | Jamie Simonds
Benedict Nelson and Anthony Gregory
© BBC | Jamie Simonds

A vast artillery piece dominated the set in ENO’s original production. Here, on the limited confines of the Barbican stage, the cast had only a few props and mere hints of costume to work with, yet none of that mattered. Director Kenneth Richardson knew that the music – and the audience’s imagination – would do the rest. We had no need to see the superb chorus of the BBC Singers in costume to know they were the suffering men in the trenches; we did not need to see the dance hall where Harry is betrayed by his beloved Jessie (Louise Alder); no matter that there were no pips on staff officer Anthony Gregory’s shoulders – he was still a chinless idiot urging the men towards an inglorious death. “Shall we die in November, in the middle or the start?” they sing, shockingly resigned to their fate.

The work begins and ends at home in Ireland, in a working-class district of Dublin, where some men chose to fight while others fomented rebellion. Poor Harry returns a shattered football hero – the winner of the Silver Tassie cup. He will never walk again and perhaps also faces rejection for joining the cause. He rails against his best friend and teammate Barney, sensitively sung by Alexander Robin Baker, who wins a VC for saving Harry’s life. Why did you save me? What sort of life is this?

And then the cruellest blow. The flighty Jessie is appalled at Harry’s injuries and falls for the hero Barney. Harry is wheeled away by his faithful mother, poignantly portrayed by Susan Bickley and by his boisterously optimistic father – Mark le Brocq on superb form.

And yet the war has not just shattered lives: it has also brought redemption and hope. The violent Teddy (Marcus Farnsworth) is blinded and comes to rely entirely on the long-suffering wife he so appallingly abused (Claire Booth); the young pious and judgmental Susie (Sally Matthews) softens into womanhood after nursing the wounded. With Jessie and Barney, they sing that life must go on, even after such a terrible war.

Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC SO © BBC | Jamie Simonds
Ryan Wigglesworth and the BBC SO
© BBC | Jamie Simonds

The Croucher, a character that stood out in the original 2000 production when it was sung by the incomparable Gwynne Howell, was to have been taken at the Barbican by Sir John Tomlinson, but he had to withdraw. The admirable Brindley Sherratt took his place, booming out his dire biblical warnings across the auditorium with chilling, implacable authority.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra performed this spectacular score with brio, allowing us to hear nuance and detail previously shrouded in the pit. Conductor Ryan Wigglesworth drew every frightening blast from brass and percussion and shaped the liquid beauty of the reflective moments with real care but having such a vast orchestra on stage meant that the singers had to wear head mics to be heard. This occasionally brought problems. Turnage leapt from his seat and ran to the sound desk when, after a few bars, it was plain that Riches’ creamy baritone wasn’t making it over the orchestra. A tricky moment in an otherwise seamless, deeply moving performance. Lest we forget, indeed.

*****