Turnage Greek

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Turnage Greek

  • Greek
  • Greek

Mark-Anthony Turnage's Greek (to a libretto by Steven Berkoff from his own Oedipus-in-the-East-End play) won two awards and a standing ovation at its premiere in Munich in 1988, capacity audiences at the Edinburgh Festival that year and both enthusiastic acclaim and public response when it later appeared at the English National Opera, on BBC television and in subsequent productions in Europe and Australia. Deprived of Jonathan Moore's staging there might have been a risk of its impact being lessened in the colder, sound-only medium of CD, but the by now seasoned cast and Richard Bernas's pungent, saxophone- and percussion-dominated band ensure that it is not.
But Greek has certainly changed, and I'm not referring to the excision of a few four-letter words from the libretto. To my ears the libretto's Cockney has become something of a problem, which I don't recall it being on stage. It's partly that twisted vowels and glottal stops don't sit comfortably on classically trained voices (the cast do wonders, but can't avoid reverting to Home Counties English whenever an awkward note needs genuinely to be sung). It's also hard to know how singers who've been trying very hard at their ''gorblimeys'' and their '''ere we gos'' should enunciate Berkoff's perplexing side-lurches into ''Confess, my dear, the quandary that doth crease your brow'' and the like. If it comes to that, Eddie/Oedipus tells us that he was ''spawned in a Tufnell Park that's no more than a stone's throw from the Angel, a monkey's fart from Tottenham or a bolt of phlegm from Stamford Hill. It's a cesspit, right … ''. Is it mere pedantry in a former resident of that cesspit to remark that the Angel, two miles off, Tottenham and Stamford Hill, five and four miles respectively, would tax most stone-throwers, monkeys or bronchitics, and that none of these agreeable places is in the East End? Probably, and yet a lack of focus, a sense of opera singers pretending to be not quite accurately observed 'Cockneys', does undermine the opera's otherwise luridly alluring vision of racism, police violence, strikes and inner city decay as the Thatcher's Britain equivalent of the Theban plagues. For all its demotic language and its brilliant devices (a chorus of shouting policemen accompanied by stamping feet, a vividly gruesome duet of exclamatory verbal violence, the Sphinx portrayed by two singers as a multiple image of destruction: the eternal feminine/feminist and the old slag) this is an apocalyptic vision seen from the comfortable vantage point of a decent restaurant well up West.
But that skewed focus doesn't diminish the directness and ingenuity of Turnage's idiom, which for all its echoes of Weill and rock, its obvious roots in Stravinsky, centres on a moody, often beautiful lyricism (the Wife's 'love aria' in Act 2), which is indeed genuinely urban; his instinct for the musical demotic is very shrewd. The opera's sonorities are precise and memorable, it has in the crucial scenes a gravity that can rise (the stricken duet and quartet after Eddy's incest and patricide are revealed) to eloquence, even nobility. The performance, those heroic efforts to reconcile Cockney and quasi-bel canto aside, could hardly be bettered; the recording pitches the opera at you hot and strong.'

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