BLO's "Greek": Eddy's Complex

Christopher Burchett, Caroline Worra, Marcus Farnsworth & Amanda Crider in "Greek"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Boston Lyric Opera, in a change of pace and venue, is presenting a twentieth century operatic work at the Emerson Paramount Center, the controversial Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage. The composer's first opera, written when he was only 28 years old, it premiered in 1988 in Munich (after he was at first a composition fellow at Tanglewood under Hans Werner Henze, who arranged a commission for him back in Germany). This BLO mounting is its first major U.S. production. With Music by Turnage and Libretto by Turnage and Jonathan Moore, adapted from the verse play of the same name by Steven Berkoff (a prolific film actor, known for such roles as the James Bond villain in Octopussy), the opera is based on the Sophocles story of Oedipus, who unwittingly fulfills the prophecy of an oracle that he will marry his mother and kill his father and, when he learns the truth, puts out his eyes in despair. This protagonist, Eddy (baritone Marcus Farnsworth), rather than feeling any shame, revels in his passion, acting out of craftiness and ambition. As the program notes describes it, the libretto shows his ambivalence between duty and love, jealousy and passion, paternalism and eroticism. It takes place in 1980's London at the height of the Margaret Thatcher era, with its own plagues of unemployment, riots and political unrest. The arts especially suffered under her, pushed to be profitable and self-sufficient, relying more on corporate sponsorship, with an emphasis on greed, bourgeois reactionary tastes and values, worship of capitalism, narrow-mindedness and unyielding conservatism. As the program also notes, all of this upheaval was certainly operatic. Needless to say, it resonates even more profoundly in light of our recent national election.

In this work, four singers and four actors perform all the roles (Farnsworth plays only the role of Eddy) in a series of short scenes, not unlike a movie (aided by scenery that cleverly produces cinematic effects such as quick dissolves). Those other singers are soprano Caroline Worra, mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider and baritone Christopher Burchett. One first hears the rhythm of chant heard at every soccer game, a kind of motif in the whole opera. Subsequently the music alternates from short and brutal segments to other longer, poetic, even lyrical passages from the 18-member orchestra (with no violins but cellos, bass, woodwinds and soprano saxophone). One hears homages to Stravinsky and Kurt Weill, echoes of jazz and 70's rock, with harsh sounds alternating with lyrical music (such as the haunting Act Two duet between Farnsworth and Crider about the passing of time), and using unusual percussive instruments including trash cans, police whistles, riot shields and brake drums. The effect may have been jarring for audiences when it was newly performed, but sounds far less controversial in our own time. Even the libretto, considered scandalous in its day, seems relatively tame by today's standards.

For a taste of the libretto, consider these examples. Eddy exclaims: So I run back, I run and run and pulse hard and feet pound, it's love I feel, it's love, what matter what form it takes, it's love! And: I want to climb back inside my Mum. What's wrong with that? It's better than shoving a stick of dynamite up someone's arse and getting a medal for it. And this exchange between father and son: Dad:You don't fancy your Mum, do you son? You don't want to kill me, do you boy? Eddy: Fancy my Mum? I'd rather go down on Hitler. Well, you get the picture.

This performance of the piece moved swiftly, in no small part due to the outstanding work by all four singers with such challenging demands. The same could be said for the orchestra, deftly led by Conductor Andrew Bisantz. And Farnsworth and his costars even manage the cockney accents with ease and frequent humor, under Stage Director Sam Helfrich. John Conklin's Set Design was crucial, aided by the Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs, and the Costume Design by Nancy Leary perfectly captured the look of the era.

This may not ever be considered among one's favorite operatic works, but it remains a very engaging and rewarding work that deserves to be seen by any serious opera buff. It's a compelling portrait of Eddy's hedonistic complex as part of a larger global miasma of social change. As Sophocles himself wrote: Live, Oedipus, as if there is no tomorrow. Amen.

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