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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Opera Review: Oi! Oi! Oi! Oedipus!

BAM NextWave goes Greek
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Up the gunners: The cast of Greek at BAM.
Photo © Brooklyn Academy of Music and Royal Scottish Opera.

What do you get when you combine the classic tragedy Oedipus Rex with the laddish patois spoken in the East End of London? The answer might be Stephen Berkoff's 1985 play Greek which was made into an opera by Mark Anthony Turnage, the English enfant terrible whose operatic treatment of the life of Anna-Nicole Smith shocked audiences and incidentally, contributed to the quick death of the New York City Opera. This version of Greek, presented at the BAM Opera House by the Royal Scottish Opera,  showed that the universal Oedipus story still has its power to shock and distur, and the plagues of Thatcher's England are all too relevant in the strange times of today.

Mr. Berkoff is best known on these shores as a quintissential 1980s movie villain (he orders the defenetration of Eddie Murphy's Axel Foley in the first act of Beverly Hills Cop) but is better known in his home country as a playwright and director. In writing Greek, he stripped down Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Mr. Berkoff's text chooses raw imagery and language throughout, emerging as an unflinching criticism of England under Margaret Thatcher. In it, "Eddy" is the young scion of a footie-loving couple who discovers the horrible truth: the bit of crumpet he's married is actually his dear old mum!

Mr. Turnage's score functions much like the later works of Carl Orff, using brass, percussion and unconventional instrumentation at times. Particularly memorable was a riot scene that featured orchestra members,  grinning with exertion and banging away on plastic riot shields with batons. However, the music takes a back seat to the text throughout, relying on the extraordinary efforts of its four person cast to get this show's message across.

At the center of Greek was of course Eddy, played by baritone Alex Otterburn. He wandered through the rotating landscape of the set, declaiming against the orchestra and switching between speech and song as demanded by the text. With his short bleached hair and wide eyes, he projected a Candide-like, gormless quality up until the last moments of the show, an Oedipus whose fall was neither sharp nor steep. However, thanks to the twists and turns of the libretto, the story lacks the heavy weight of Sophocles or Stravinsky, making Eddy's tragedy one of ennui, not incest.

Susan Bullock is known for tackling the heaviest parts in the Wagnerian repertory, and she brought that level of authority and passion to her performance as Eddie's (adoptive) Mum. Allison Cook played multiple parts: Eddie's sister Doreen and his eventual unnamed Wife, who he meets when she's waitressing in a workingman's caff. As Eddie's (adoptive) Dad, Andrew Shore projected the same comic skills that have delighted opera-goers around the globe. However, nobody really had much to do in the way of singing or melody, as everything was focused on the declamation and support of the text.

Mr. Shore, Ms. Cook and Ms. Bullock shifted costumes with astonishing rapidity, using the back of the spinning-flat set as a sort of rapid changing room as they gained and lost Arsenal scarves, Mohawk haircuts and in the case of the ladies: ugly PVC waitress outfits. Most memorable was when the trio of supporters put on enormous masks to become a Greek Chorus, and the scene where the two ladies became the Sphinx: here an expression of female empowerment rendered moot by the arrogant Eddy.

All of the action took place on a unit set: a white flat the width of the BAM Opera House stage, mounted on a central swivel with two doors at either end. This white wall also acted as a giant overhead projection surface, showing the audience an unholy mess of images generated on a flat surface at stage left. These included toy soldiers doused with ketchup, swirls of mayonnaise and OK Sauce, and finally, a swarm of live maggots, rendered giant-sized and revolting, a not-too-subtle symbol of "Maggie," or is it "MAGA?"

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