The first opera I reviewed for Scots Whay Hae! was Scottish Opera’s The Devil Inside, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, which was a collaboration between writer Louise Welsh and composer Stuart Macrae. Not only was it a wonderful marriage between Scottish literature and opera, but it introduced me to an art form about which I had previously known little but have now come to love. With that in mind I was excited by the prospect of Welsh and Macrae’s latest opera, Anthropocene. This time around it is an original story, and knowing Louise’s written work well I expected the unexpected. What I didn’t expect was what unfolded.
One of the things I have come to learn about opera is that it is more often than not a wonderful yet visceral assault on the senses – the sights, sounds, sets, and singing combining to affect you emotionally, but also physically. This makes it the perfect platform for Welsh’s gothic sensibilities and Macrae’s memorable music. Anthropocene is a horror story set on the boat of the same name which is on an exploratory voyage into the heart of the Arctic, with the ice closing in making the disparate crew prisoners.
The discovery of a block of ice in which there is a frozen body becomes a Sword of Damocles hanging over proceedings. When the body is freed and proves to be alive, (looking not unlike a member of Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army), you just know that things are not going to end well. Is this person human, or is she otherworldly – a sprite, spirit, or perhaps even selkie? It soon becomes clear is that she is more ancient and elemental than the crew of the ‘Anthropocene’ realise. What they see, in one form or another, are opportunities for fame and fortune. Only the superstitious sailors fear the repercussions, believing bad luck will come of this.
There are many influences which spring to mind with Anthropocene, particularly from literature and cinema. With any drama set in the Arctic the significant spectre of Frankenstein looms large, but I thought the story was more a mixture of supernatural folk tale and modern horror. Think John Carpenter’s The Thing crossed with the original Alien and you’ll get a sense of the hopeless isolation and growing dread which pervades throughout. The lighting and deceptively simple set are also vital to the production, with the almost totally white backdrop only enhancing the strength of the quite sensational final scenes.
There are serious themes which underpin Anthropocene. Commentary on science meddling with nature, the avarice and ambition of man – in fact most of the seven deadly sins are in attendance, even gluttony judging by the state of the skinned animal hanging at the back of the stage in Act II (see slideshow below). The music enhances and helps create the atmosphere, and you are never at ease throughout. I was physically exhausted by the end, so Lord alone knows how the cast must have felt!
Everyone involved in Anthropocene should be proud as it is an exceptional example of just what modern opera can acheieve. This was a triumph for a true ensemble production with everyone playing their part in building the tension all the way to the curtain fall. If you read this and think opera is not your thing, then why not give this one a try? I’ll guarantee, no matter your response, you will never forget it.
Many thanks to Scottish Opera for the use of these images – Credit: James Glossop
Anthropocene is at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal till 26th Jan before moving to Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre (31st Jan – 2nd Feb) and then the Hackney Empire (7-9 Feb).