You hold you breath as the curtain, or more often the scrim rises on a new opera. What you're about to see and hear has cost the composer at the very least a year of his or her life. The artists on stage and in the pit are taking their reputations in their hands. And the company itself has made the kind of gamble that has bankers rushing for a darkened room. This is a high wire with no safety net business. And when it's a composer’s first opera the stakes are even higher.
So the good news is that Julian Anderson's Thebans is magnificent. But if it's a triumph then it's been hard won. As the composer told the audience at the pre-performance talk before the second night of Thebans (and you can hear the conversation on the ENO website), he has lived with the idea for this opera since he was a teenager. More than that, having composed the first act which tells of Oedipus's blinding and expulsion from Thebes, he didn't like what he had done. So he put it aside and set about writing an entirely new score.
The story of Antigone burying her brother Polynices against the orders of Creon, the new king of Thebes and Oedipus's death in the Athenian wood at Colonus may be shorter but they are no less sharp than the first act. Chilling, in fact, with Creon's police state locked into a harsh and unrelenting musical pulse throughout. You long to shout out ‘Enough for now’ as the act marches relentlessly to its end. So the lyric beauty of Antigone’s farewell song before she is walled up comes as balm for the bruised soul.
However, if you yearn for reconciliation and redemption at the end look away. Anderson and his librettist Frank McGuinness’ account of the Oedipus myth makes few concessions to charitable feelings. As McGuiness told a journalist, “These are works that speak directly to me. I can only do plays when they touch me to the core, and at the very heart of these three is an awesome and brutal truth. Our fathers fail us, and then we fail our fathers.”
These are stories, or rather myths, that do much to make us feel for their principal characters, they are embedded deep down in who we are, culturally for sure and maybe personally too. Wagner was right: myth makes great opera. After all it all began with Monteverdi and the myth of Orfeo.
This is not to hang a pair of other composers around Julian Anderson’s neck. In his writing for the orchestra – notably brass and woodwind – and for the chorus Anderson is his own master. In every sense the risk was worth it, for the company, the singers and the composer. As a friend texted me after the second performance. ‘If I were rich I’d commission a second opera [from him] straight away.” In the meantime we can sit in the Coliseum waiting for the scrim to rise and breathe as normal.