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WATERFORD/ Theatre Royal: THE INVADER – a new Irish opera by Eric Sweeney. English version

02.06.2014 | KRITIKEN, Oper

NEW IRISH OPERA: THE INVADER by Eric Sweeney (30. May 2014). English version

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The Invader, a new opera by Irish composer Eric Sweeney, premiered at the Theatre Royal in Waterford, Ireland, on the 23rd May and takes its inspiration from Euripides‘ play the Bacchae. Poet Mark Roper has adapted the original, by adding the central figure of Mia, King Pentheus‘ daughter and has thus made the play surprisingly relevant at a number of different levels to a contemporary audience. The dichotomy between civilisation and the ‚wild‘, society versus nature, male rationality versus female intuition was already a preoccupation in Ancient Greece, but Roper in his own sparse and subdued style manages to astound and surprise with a clever double mirror effect of wise grandmother Agathe/ candid granddaughter Mia, versus stern King Pentheus/ playful Dion, the god of pleasure and creativity.

In Eric Sweeney, he has found a sensitive and effective partner, whose music borrowed from a variety of sources, succeeds overall to convince: in a succession of musical tableaux, using a string quartet, a double Bass, a piano and 4 winds to cover a wide range of contrasting colours, textures and moods, the chamber orchestra punches well above its weight in volume and dramatic punch. Starting with a repetitive Glass-like pattern, Sweeney quickly introduces a lyrical string-led leitmotiv, which will return throughout the evening, rising at times to nearly Wagnerian heights. The piano at time underscoring, is most effective when used for its percussive quality, not without a nod to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and adds welcome rhythmic contrast: this works particularly well in the passages with the ‚wild women‘ to accentuate the sheer raw power and threat of their primal energy. These wild women are the Bacchaes, a choir of 7 superb young singers, who have indeed found, under the expert direction of movement director Libby Seward, their ‚inner‘ wild dancer and perform vocally and physically with a primal energy rarely seen on a operatic stage. Their movements is exuberant, and so contagious that they draw in young Mia, the daughter of King Pentheus, who has been overly protected by her father since the death of her mother in childbirth.

Unable to grieve, and hence to move on, he compensates for his loss by insulating his daughter from the wi(l)der world, exposing her to an unhealthy degree of intimacy which even Agatha, his mother is uneasy with. And indeed, that unease is passed to us audience, as we witness a display of fatherly affection which director Ben Barnes skilful suggests borders on the manipulative and indeed incestuous, Mia the obedient child playing puppet to the father’s puppeteer. In our days of tabloid headline a la Fritzl, any hint of inappropriate intimacy spells trouble ahead.

And indeed trouble there will be, as the young woman starts to hear ‚the call of the wild‘ and is eventually wooed into the woods by Dion and his 7-strong cohort of wild women. Away from the enclosed walls of her father’s castle, Mia, sung with dramatic bravado and luminous warm tones by British soprano Natalie Jouhl, discovers freedom, adulthood and claims that in the woods, she can at last breathe.

In time, King Pentheus himself will be drawn into the woods, but not before a playful encounter with Dion, played with poise by young Israeli tenor Telman Gushevsky, in which the once oppressor is unmasked and turned into little more than a ‚crown on a stick‘ through the skilful use of a foxtrot tune, during which Dion convinces the King to dress up as a woman. In this new garb, Joe Corbett, as King Pentheus, makes a convincing, at time pathetic but poignant father, holding on desperately to what he thinks he can control, only for his daughter to elude him as she must, if she is to become an independent adult. In a last attempt to retrieve her, he follows Dion into a bacchanal of debauchery, where unmasked by his own daughter, she will be pitiless and the instrument of his demise. Queen Agatha, sung by the excellent Alison Browner, sombre and dignified throughout, appears in the aftermath of the scene and brings young Mia out of her torpor, with a few last wise words: her son died at the hands of the wood and the wild, rather than by human hand… the forces of nature (or human frailty) are what did it…

As a piece of drama, The Invader is a taut, tender and at time terrifying piece of theatre, elegantly framed in a handsome set by Monica Frawley and subtle lighting by John Cominsky. As a piece of operatic drama, The Invader, manages the rare feat of bringing the human drama into the realm of the archetypal and the heroic, thanks to beautiful rousing melodic lines and a subtle and varied orchestration, both of which were given full justice under the baton of the composer, in the superior acoustics of the new Wexford Opera House. At less than two hours long, much credit goes to the creative team of composer-librettist Sweeney and Roper and director-choreographer Barnes and Seward and their cast of accomplished singers for such a exceptionally well produced and enjoyable spectacle.

Theresia Guschlbauer


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