The week in classical: Anthropocene; Die Walküre review – ice and fire

Theatre Royal, Glasgow; Royal Festival Hall, London
Tensions rise as an Arctic expedition becomes trapped in ice in Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh’s bold, chilling new opera

The anthropocene – the epoch of humans – is upon us. Climate scientists first used the term some two decades ago. Now, if not quite on the street, it’s enough of a buzzword to become the title of an opera. The latest collaboration by the composer Stuart MacRae and the novelist and poet Louise Welsh was given its world premiere by Scottish Opera in Glasgow last week, with performances in Edinburgh and, yet to come, at Hackney Empire, London.

Whether by chance or design, Anthropocene’s first night overlapped with the World Economic Forum in Davos. It was impossible not to conflate TV news images of calving glaciers, Swiss snowscapes and sage warnings from David Attenborough with the opera’s unnerving Arctic setting. The plot has a contemporary edge: a rich entrepreneur funds a scientific research trip to Greenland in a ship named Anthropocene. A few hi-tech gizmos, fur-hooded parkas and snow goggles are enough to set the scene in Matthew Richardson’s nimble, unfussy production, lit by him too, and designed by Samal Blak.

Up to the minute the opera may be, but its energy leaps from a deeper, older source of myth. The Golden Bough, by that favourite Scottish-Victorian anthropologist (note the word) James Frazer, is a wellspring, with its notions of kingship, dying gods and human sacrifice. Anthropocene’s central figure is a woman called Ice, long frozen and brought back to life, sung with unworldly coloratura crispness and cool precision by Jennifer France. Harry King (Mark Le Brocq) is the ship’s brash, power-wielding owner. The names of other characters – Prentice, Ross, Vasco – echo those of past explorers.

That’s the context. In the theatre it’s an edge-of-seat thriller, following the mode of MacRae and Welsh’s previous, smaller-scale works such as Ghost Patrol (2012) and The Devil Inside (2016). Professor Prentice (Jeni Bern) leads the expedition with her husband, Charles (Stephen Gadd). Miles, played with particular physical daring by Benedict Nelson, is a hack journalist unburdened by scruples. The entire cast, including Sarah Champion, Paul Whelan and Anthony Gregory, performed their distinctive music with well-integrated expertise, cogently conducted by Stuart Stratford.

Without spelling out and spoiling the plot, disaster ensues, as those age-old human traits of power, jealousy and incompetence take hold. Welsh knows how to tell a taut story, but so too does MacRae in a score that is approachable but also bold, independent and varied. In the buoyant, spiky string writing of the opening, in the menacing surges of deep woodwind, you can hear MacRae’s influences: among them, Stravinsky, Carter, Xenakis, Birtwistle. Dissonance and harmony jostle against each other. Set pieces, as in the beautiful interweaving voices of Ice and Prentice in Act 1, rise out of a free-flowing, filmic structure. As with most new operas, it could be tighter at times, and the shift between scenes and orchestral interludes doesn’t always work: nothing that can’t be fixed for future stagings, of which let’s hope Anthropocene has many.

Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Die Walküre at the Royal Festival Hall, 27 January 2019.
Vladimir Jurowski conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Die Walküre at the Royal Festival Hall last week. Photograph: Simon Jay Price

Adroit, transparent and brisk, Vladimir Jurowski’s approach to Wagner shuns indulgence or surfeit. This was the case in Die Walküre, the second opera in a concert hall Ring with the London Philharmonic, beginning last year and ending in early 2021. Jurowski steeps himself in intellectual and cultural worlds beyond the notes, yet banishes any bookishness by absorbing his discoveries into the drama. Out of such scrupulousness, soul-baring drama emerges. The Russian conductor’s departure for Munich in two years’ time (when he becomes music director at the Bayerische Staatsoper) is a bleak prospect for UK concert-goers.

Sunday’s Die Walküre drew vivid, masterly playing from the LPO: horns, violas, harps, every section deserving praise. An uneven cast, however, resulted in a patchy evening (not helped by cursory video of electric storms, a rheumy horse and a tree). The warmth of mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose’s Sieglinde couldn’t disguise a weakness at the top, where daredevil vigour is needed. Soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva, as Brünnhilde, sounded gusty rather than intrepid. The bass-baritone Markus Marquardt, secure in notes, has yet to persuade us that Wotan is one of the most fascinating characters in opera.

There were triumphs. Stephen Milling’s obsessive Hunding loured brilliantly. The Valkyries excelled in their witchy battle cries, even from far away at the back. Claudia Mahnke’s Fricka, her voice glinting but full of tender inflection, made you think about this character afresh. She showed this goddess of marriage to be no moralistic shrew – the usual narrow take – but a woman close to despair, proud but agonised. Stuart Skelton dazzled as the fateful Wälsung Siegmund, golden-toned, heroic, soaring above the orchestra. As for his crazed, fortissimo yell of “Wälse! Wälse!”, yes, the Australian heldentenor held on long after, you might say, the lights had changed. Why not? It’s a thrilling, climactic moment. He’s in his Herculean prime. Surely Wagner, too, would have cheered.

Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Die Walküre at the Royal Festival Hall 27 January 2019.
Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Die Walküre at the Royal Festival Hall. Photograph: Simon Jay Price

Star ratings (out of five)
Die Walküre ★★★

Anthropocene is at Hackney Empire, London, 7 and 9 February

Watch a trailer for Scottish Opera’s Anthropocene.


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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