As Thebans, a new opera by Julian Anderson, has its world première at the London Coliseum, ENO proves its commitment to the future of opera and nurturing new work and talent, bringing Sophocles’s tragic dramas to life with a new score and impressive creative team. Thebans consists of the three Theban plays – King Oedipus, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus – and casts new light on the tragic and turbulent fate of King Oedipus and his family.

Thebans is divided into three acts, the first of which is Past: The Fall of Oedipus. Oedipus is king of Thebes, married to Jocasta with whom he has four children and an apparent happy marriage. However Thebes is haunted by a terrible plague and the city fears the gods’ vengeance. Oedipus curses the killer of Laius, the previous king, who is to blame for the plague and sets out to find out who he was, so he can be punished. As the truth unfolds, Oedipus learns he is in fact the killer of Laius – his own father – and that he has married his own mother. In despair Queen Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus blinds himself, going into exile to punish himself for his crimes at the hand of Fate and the Gods.

Act II (Future: Antigone) tells the story of Oedipus’s daughter, Antigone, who has grown up in Thebes under the reign of her uncle, Creon. Oedipus’s two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other in fight over the throne and Creon, honouring Eteocles who fought to save Thebes, proclaims that he will have an honourable burial – whereas Polynices, whose army was set to destroy the city, is to be left to rot in the open, to be devoured by dogs and birds and therefore not have a chance of entering the afterlife. Antigone defies Creon and tries to bury her dead brother, but she is captured and sentenced to death by Creon. However the gods take vengeance and Creon loses everyone he loves in this terrible tragedy. Act III meanwhile, Present: The Death of Oedipus, shows Oedipus still alive before the catastrophe in Act II when he arrives in a sacred wood, visited by Theseus King of Athens, before the gods call and his life ends.

Julian Anderson’s Thebans is dark and bloody with a vivid soundscape, travelling from dissonance to consonance and constantly exploring the range and sounds of Ancient Greece and the horrible fates of the people of Thebes. The music is bubbling under the surface of great human emotion and drags out the pain and despair of its characters, giving Thebans a gloomy, majestic score, constantly evolving, never resting, but impulsive and aggressive just like the themes of Sophocles’s tragedies. Roland Wood’s Oedipus is sung with great gravitas and feeling, his daughter Antigone (Julia Sporsén) shows fantastic range, and her lover Haemon, Creon’s youngest son (the young Anthony Gregory), soars and shows great emotional connection. Peter Hoare’s Creon is full of variety, beautifully acted and sung, and with Anderson’s intentional changes in Creon’s music it is the most defined, rounded and intriguing character in the production.

Pierre Audi, founder of the Almeida Theatre and director of the Dutch National Opera, makes his ENO début and directs Thebans with a firm hand and a very clear, powerful vision. The theatrical images of this production are eerily beautiful and draw out the text and music, making Thebans a force of nature – a powerful mass of raw human emotion – accompanied by a frantic, energetic score. Tom Pye’s set design is stunning and uses Lysander Ashton’s striking video designs to create a haunting image of doomed Thebes.

Thebans is an immense new production and its imagery is very effective and inspiring. However, the score is more like a soundscape accompanying the libretto than an actual set of melodies, and therefore never really hooks us. It feels like an underscore of sounds accompanying the text, which is sung freely, without a certain structure; this represents the style of Julian Anderson’s work, but as an operatic score it never really hits us emotionally. But even if it feels like the tragedies have been fast-forwarded and glanced over in the very short performance time, losing some character development and a sense of build-up, it will still hit you in the solar plexus with its powerful imagery and performances.

Thebans is playing at the London Coliseum until 31 May, for more information and tickets, see the English National Opera website.

Photo by Tristram Kenton.

Tristram Ken