King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – 31st January, 2nd February.
Reviewed by James Knight
Scottish Opera’s presents their new opera ‘Anthropocene’ – a psychological thriller set in the Arctic. A sudden freeze captures the crew of a research vessel in the ice, coinciding with the discovery of a woman buried deep within the frozen wasteland…
‘Anthropocene’ is in three acts composed by Stuart MacRae and libretto by Louise Welsh, the writing team behind 2016’s ‘The Devil Inside’. The music borders on experimental – the orchestra is pushed to the furthest ranges possible to create a shifting soundscape that reflects the ever-changing polar ice caps. The percussion is of particular note, in particular the use of what sounded (to this reviewer at least) like a superball mallet, which when dragged across a drum produces a haunting and expressive drone. The use of elements such as these, as well as inviting the strings and woodwind to play in quartertones adds to the otherworldly quality.
The performers prove themselves well against a challenging score. Of particular note is Mark Le Brocq (Tenor) as the expeditions’ benefactor Harry King, whose extravagant vocal flourishes immediately reveal to the audience his self-confidence and swollen ego, and Jennifer France (Soprano) as Ice, the mysterious frozen woman, whose vocal range is pushed to impressive extremes.
But for all its technical prowess, the story and human interactions felt, well, cold. Crafted as a thriller, with a group of mismatched people thrown together in dire circumstances, there’s very little time given to build the relationships between the characters. Coloured jackets may pair up the crew, husband to wife, father to daughter, captain to ship’s engineer, leaving the journalist Miles Black (Benedict Nelson – Baritone) conspicuously adrift, foreshadowing future developments, but more time could have been given to make the audience feel for these characters. Instead, even in quieter moments, such as a contemplation of the Aurora, the music is very much focussed in cranking up the tension. This may of course be a conscious decision on the part of the writers, but it doesn’t give the characters any room for relatability.
The pacing struggles too, and the first act feels like it could naturally be trimmed, while the conflict and climax in the third act, as well as the revelation of Ice’s past feels rushed, and the internal logic of sacrifice and climate change are questionable.
‘Anthropocene’ is musically and vocally impressive, and symbolic touches like a hanging, skinned polar bear hint at darker events to come, however more time perhaps needs to be spent on the development and nurturing of the characters.