Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Keith Bruce

four stars

IN their fourth collaboration, composer Stuart MacRae and writer Louise Welsh have produced the contemporary thriller that the librettist’s other work might always have promised she would bring to the opera stage. The villain of the piece is journalist Miles, sung by baritone Benedict Nelson, a character the work’s creators perhaps understandably largely kept a secret in their preview interviews with the press. In one of the work’s nods to standard opera convention, he and the tenor, seaman Vasco (Anthony Gregory) fall out over a woman, Daisy (mezzo Sarah Champion), the daughter of Harry King (Mark LeBrocq) owner of the ship of that gives the work its title.

When this Arctic expedition – with all its Darwinian parallels – becomes trapped, they apparently discover a figure preserved in the ice, soprano Jennifer France, around whom their mutual fate becomes entwined. There is fine characterisation in this narrative, great performances across the cast and some memorable set pieces, including that face-off duet between Miles and Vasco and a the vocal trio for the female characters later on, but the pivotal character of Ice seems if anything, slightly underwritten, and the excitement generated by the work on either side of the interval seems a let little let down by the denouement.

Director Matthew Richardson and designer Samal Blak’s staging has echoes of both a red-carpet movie premiere and Spielberg’s E.T. as well as some meta-theatre chicanery with the letters of the title. It may be an overused term, but there is much that is genuinely “cinematic” in both the staging and in MacRae’s score, which conjures up the landscape of the tundra as eloquently as the design. The orchestra, under Scottish Opera’s music director Stuart Stratford, delivers in spades.

With superb diction from the whole company, Anthropocene is a work of great clarity, and very accessible, for all its musical modernity. The relatively few performances of this premiere run should presage an early revival – and hopefully export potential for our national opera company – and perhaps a little more muscle might be added to its ending when that opportunity arises.

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh January 31 and February 2; Hackney Empire, London, February 7 & 9.