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by on 8 February 2019

Sacrifice Through a Prism of Ice


by Stuart MacRae, libretto by Louise Walsh

Scottish Opera at the Hackney Empire until 9th February

Review by Mark Aspen

A polar vortex sweeps down from the north this weekend with the London premiere of Scottish Opera’s Anthropocene, an Arctic blast that is as terrifyingly fascinating as an iceberg, as multifaceted as a snowflake.

The multifaceted nature of this unusual opera is as refreshing as ice, although some may find the concept as worrying as being trapped on a ship icebound in the Arctic Ocean somewhere to the north of Greenland. For this is the setting of Anthropocene, MacRae’s new opera, on-board a scientific research ship, the RV King’s Anthropocene (undoubtedly a unique setting for an opera). The ship’s name in geological nomenclature is that of the contentiously suggested alternative to the current Holocene epoch, that where humans are in the ascendancy; or so they believe. With hubris greater than any Greek god, the owner of the ship, Harry King declares that he has mastery over nature and has sponsored this expedition to discover the origins of life. “We are like gods, reaching out” he states, hence the ship has “a name that guarantees a winner”. Anthropocentrism is all.

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Anthropocene is a piece in which meanings are multi-layered, a piece saturated with symbolisms. Its inspirations are manifold and diverse: librettist Louise Walsh refers inter alia to Frankenstein and The Tempest, and Agatha Christie seems to be lurking somewhere in this psychological thriller, but the overwhelming symbolism revolves around the theme of sacrifice. Should we look to Euripides or to the Bible? With such a wealth of allusions, Act One does seem to be overburdened with trying to work out its own genre, thriller, polemic, spoof, adventure story, spiritual guide, fable …? However, once this labour produces a clear narrative direction, it develops a strong ethos, and we are presented with an edge-of-the-seat griping tale, albeit one with mores twists and turns than the Stelvio Pass.

MacRae’s score is edgy, delicately brittle, insistent. It has the nervous feel of later Schoenberg, and conductor Stuart Stratford places the timing just right. The music is wonderfully expressive of the actions and emotions of the opera, which often bursts forth in great displays of lyrical beauty, including some duets and trios that have a transcendent early Baroque cadence. There are no huge set-piece arias: this is an ensemble driven work.

What can a designer do with a backdrop of the Arctic? Designer Samal Blak hails from the sub-polar Faroes, so he has a head start: white drapes all round. His set is largely the structure and marine plant of the ship. Hints of the form of the red hull jut out from the proscenium, hydraulic lifts and ramps centre stage, and the fourth wall starts out as the ship’s rail made up the proudly proclaimed name, A-N-T-H-R-O-P-O-C-E-N-E.
It is a pity that director, Matthew Richardson allows himself to be constrained by the ship’s rail in Act One. The cast tend to be lined up behind it like concert singers, but when the rail is removed, then his performers can move, use the whole stage and act as well as sing. Sing they do consummately, with a demanding score that expands the usual register of most of them.

Richardson also doubles as the lighting designer, and here have creates some very evocative effects, for the light of nature, and lack of it, is an imperative feature in polar regions. Most memorable is the aurora borealis, whose awe-inspiring presence is equally impressively evoked in the score, its flicker picked out by the woodwind, with the soft-focus of quarter tones.

Anthropocene. 4Even the brash and arrogant Harry King is uneasy under the eerie aurora. He has turned his entrepreneurial father’s “little million” into billons, but now wants to make a name for himself in saving the planet as well as discovering the secret of life. (He is nothing if not ambitious.) In the wilderness of the ice tundra though, he “might imagine those old superstitions true”. Tenor Mark Le Brocq plays King with gusto, his range extended with high-noted wonder, contrasting with the passages in which volatile temper boils over. On the ship with King is his daughter, Daisy, ostensibly the official photographer, but really along for the ride. Mezzo Sarah Champion makes a spirted Daisy, a voice of reason when emotions run high.

The opera opens straight into the action with the ship’s captain and engineer, Ross and Vasco, observing with great concern the rapidly falling temperature of the pack-ice that surrounds the ship. The rich resonant bass of Paul Whelan as Ross spoke strongly of the down-to-earth seafarer, yet not without the superstitions traditionally associated with this calling. Vasco is a man trying to focus on the practicalities of the day, but becoming increasingly distracted, none the least by a growing attraction to Daisy. Anthony Gregory’s fine and gentle tenor voice nicely characterises a man moved in spite of himself.

Anthropocene. 5Captain Ross wants to head immediately into open waters, but the expedition’s leader Professor Prentice urges him to stay as her husband, research scientist Charles, together with Daisy and a journalist, Miles, are away from the ship, drilling for ice-cores. Daisy and Miles return exhausted, but it is already too late and the ship is frozen in. When Charles returns, it is with an astounding discovery, a human body preserved in the ice.
One is reminded of the five millennia old Ötzi found in a glacier on the Italian-Austrian border in 1991, but this body is much better preserved.

Anthropocene. 6The shock comes when the body opens its eyes!! The unnerved Vasco smashes the ice with an axe and a young woman awakens from hibernation. In the hours after this shattering discovery, the members of the expedition party each nurtures their own ambitions for fame or fortune or both by planning to exploit this discovery. King is jubilant in that it represents an unimagined triumph for his project. Professor Prentice dreams of Noble Prizes for an “eclipsing Darwin” discovery. Jeni Bern portrays Prentice as a woman in conflict, as her objective scientific approach runs in conflict with almost maternal feelings for the mysterious woman. Her well edged soprano enhances the opportunities given by the music as she tries to assure herself that “we only know what we can measure”. Baritone Stephen Gadd fills his short arias with a sense of wonder, that “we will unlock the secrets of existence”, but relishes the fame it will bring him, he who saved her from the ice and “brought you back to life”.

Miles, however, bitter and resentful at his, at one point violent, treatment by King, is determined to make the most of the overarching scoop that will lift him from being a jobbing hack to being a wealthy man, but when his editor back in London is incredulous, he resolves to up the ante by sabotaging communications with the ship. However, when he goads Vasco over his affections for Daisy, a fight breaks out and Vasco discovers the electronic board that Miles has removed from the telecoms unit. In a panic, Miles strikes Vasco a fatal blow with a spanner. Benedict Nelson imbues the part of Miles with a skulking aggrieved edge, and an animalistic baritone underlines the character.

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The young woman from the ice calls herself Ice in a primordial expression of her own being. As Ice, Jennifer France is outstanding, right from the moment that she uncurls like a foetus from the womb, but shaking the stiffness of age from her limbs. France’s ethereal otherworldly soprano in made for the most fragile phrasing of MacRae’s score. Soaring yet subtly and delicately decorated, her voice captivates with its alien coolness. Nevertheless, there is a plangent urgency that draw as an immediate sympathy for the plight of this creature, torn between two different worlds. As the weeks pass, we learn of the shocking events that befell Ice. It was she who was chosen by her tribe to be the human sacrifice to appease the gods who bound her people in a winter without a spring. Her description of her own death is heart-rending, how (with edgy illustration from some unusual percussion) “father’s knife screamed on the whetstone” while “mother told me I was beautiful”, until “my blood melted the snow”. Here is an Iphigenia in Aulis or an Isaac on Mount Moriah without an Artemis or an angel of God to intervene.

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Some of the opera’s most lyrical passages are around the interaction of Ice with the other two women. In a duet of Baroque colour and intensity, France and Bern contrast the world views of Ice and Prentice, whilst a poetic trio by the women, a prelude to Ice’s revelations, is truly exquisite.

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Meanwhile, at the back of the set, above the hungry marooned mariners, there hangs a skinned and paunched carcass of a seal. Ice’s sacrifice was undone by her release from her frozen womb, and another sacrifice is needed to release the now crushed ship … but it is not to be the seal.

Ice explains “love bound my wrists”, “the favoured child, most loved, true sacrifice”. A sacrifice made “in fear and hate” is not true.

This cold Arctic will make some shudder, but those who see a Christ-like sacrifice through the prism of Ice will find a bracing wind in Anthropocene.

Mark Aspen
February 2019

Photography by James Glossop

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