Boston Lyric Opera Annex presents Greek; Opera 101 at Boston Public Library Dec. 8
By James Foritano
Boston, MA – “Greek,” which was performed as part of the Boston Lyric Opera’s “Opera Annex” series from Nov. 16-20 at Washington Street’s Emerson Paramount Theater, while bold and daring, bit off more than it, and we, can chew. At least in this reviewer’s opinion.
This is not to damn the production, since experimental theater/opera is supposed to take chances, and the Boston Lyric Opera’s “Opera Annex” series is purposed to “shake up the grand-opera model,” according to approving praise from the Wall Street Journal that was quoted in this opera’s program.
Perhaps, though, some classics are better off left alone, or at least approached with more modesty — lest the approach itself be “shaken up.”
To start at the very beginning would be to start around 2,500 years ago when Sophocles wrote his still living play, “Oedipus Rex,” about powerful people acting badly, through generations, and receiving the come-uppance of their own just deserts — as well as a couple of damaging swipes from the gods.
Fast forward to 1988 when the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage premiered “Greek,” his first opera, at the Munich Biennale Festival. Based on the play of the same name written by Steven Berkoff, he co-wrote the libretto with Jonathan Moore.
Daringly, and perhaps quixotically, Turnage and Moore imagined that the economic plague that seized London, especially in the 1980s, and ascribed by some to Margaret Thatcher’s top-down view of economic health, would seize modern opera fans with the same horror that the fatefully wrecked kingdom of Thebes seized Greek audiences so long ago.
Ingeniously and artfully, the first act of “Greek” attempts to document those modern horrors with vignettes that show a depressed populace glutting themselves on sports and drink at the local pubs. And worse, a younger segment of the populace is rioting in the streets, taking and giving physical punishment with the police in a very mean London left smoking with garbage left by continuous labor strikes.
Out of this plague-like, harrowing mess arises an East End London lad of colorful diction and sterner stuff. Eddy, performed by Marcus Farnsworth, rises from a cog in a limping service economy to become the well-to-do owner of an eating place that he and wife transform from a greasy spoon to a place to see and be seen.
Unfortunately, in this “rags to riches” journey, he inadvertently kills his dad and unwittingly marries his mom. Still though, since he’s a modern lad and made of sterner stuff than those wimpy Greeks, he arises from this ‘little death’ and carries on.
Yes, you infer correctly that this reviewer didn’t feel the horror of Eddy’s predicament fully enough to experience catharsis. And yet, I did appreciate the full orchestra ingeniously lifted up above the stage and playing contemporary atonal music that was sometimes engagingly, tintinnabulatingly jazzy, and at other times, to me, simply dismal.
Also, the back story of these hard times for England was delivered efficiently with old newsreels and clever, impressive staging which opens to reveal cops in riot gear beating up civilians. Owww!
Yes, it’s all very harrowing, and yes, survivors like Eddy who possessed the wit and grit to survive — very well, indeed, at that — when all was against him, deserve credit. But, was it tragic or just 10 years of really bad luck?
And, if just bad luck, was it worth an opera — some of it very well sung and one scene between Eddy and his wife/mother, sung by Amanda Crider, scintillating with love in all its forms — or would just an evening of bluesy songs have been quite enough? Or maybe a rock musical with a walk-on for Margaret Thatcher and the London 1%?
(The next Boston Lyric Opera presentation, “Opera 101: The Voices of Opera” takes place on Thursday, December 8 at 6 p.m. at Rabb Hall at the Boston Public Library Central Branch in Copley Square. The next BLO performance, Jules Massanet’s Werther, is scheduled for March 11-20, 2017. For more information, visit http://www.blo.org