The commissioning of a new full-length opera is an incalculable risk for any opera company. Will it be any good? Will anyone come and see it? Scottish Opera has taken that gamble with Anthropocene, a three-act thriller by composer Stuart MacRae and novelist/librettist Louise Welsh, set in the icy wastes of Greenland. It is, going by Thursday’s fast-moving premiere, a bankable asset.
Scottish Opera: Anthropocene, Theatre Royal, Glasgow ****
For a start, there is a storyline very much of our time, with references to climate change, megalomaniac businessmen, the awkward co-existence of “Almighty God and technology”, and characters that, by and large, illuminate the blanket whiteness of the eponymous ship and the harsh polar landscape which entraps it for the majority of the opera.
At the heart of the tale is the discovery of a young woman buried in the ice – her name is Ice – whose “resurrection” sets off a sequence of extreme actions (sabotage, murder and bloody justice) among the motley crew.
The cast is a defining strength. Mark Le Brocq’s larger-than-life Harry King, the leader and financier of the expedition, enters with a swagger you just know is set to turn sour. His rich tenor voice cuts venomously through the icy orchestral washes of the opera’s electrifying start. Benedict Nelson’s duplicitous Miles, a journalist so desperate he’ll do anything for a scoop, is a convincing saddo.
The towering Paul Whelan and Anthony Gregory exude mysterious undercurrents in their roles as Captain Ross and the short-lived Vasco. Stephen Gadd plays a solid, rational Charles. The three hard-hitting female roles – Jeni Bern as the stoical Professor Prentice, a radiant Sarah Champion as King’s ballsy daughter, and Jennifer France, sublime in the high soprano reaches that evoke the ephemeral presence of Ice – come together in some of the opera’s most exhilarating ensemble numbers.
Then there is MacRae’s music, which is one of his most evocative and effusive scores to date. Out of the long and comfortable working relationship he has established with Welsh – this is their fourth project together – comes a sense of ease and adventure, music that flits effortlessly between feverishly dissonant melodrama, luscious soundscapes and tender arioso.
Music director Stuart Stratford could do with refining the precision of the string playing; as such, Scottish Opera Orchestra doesn’t yet do full justice to the score’s luminescent potential.
There’s a question mark, too, over the head-over-heels resolution to Welsh’s plot in the third act, which begins to test credibility: only just, but enough in Matthew Richardson’s action-packed production to weaken the overall power of the piece.
Anthropocene’s run is minimal, with two performances in Glasgow and two in Edinburgh. Given the existence of a chamber orchestra version for the forthcoming London performances, however, might it not be extended sometime to the further reaches of Scotland? That would fulfil this opera’s potential to be a sound investment. - Ken Walton
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 26 January; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 31 January and 2 February