Anthropocene – Scottish Opera – Review

It is a joy that Scottish Opera have once again commissioned a significant new work and included it in their main stage programme and it is unsurprising that they have turned once again to librettist Louise Welsh and composer Stuart MacRae. Their last collaboration The Devil Inside was a brilliant hit in 2016.

This production once again looks straight into the face of all that is uncanny and disturbing and makes for an interesting though never comforting evening.

A ship gets stuck in the ice off Greenland. It contains a rich entrepreneur and his daughter, a couple of scientists, a journalist and a couple of crew members. They get trapped due to the actions of one of the scientists who has discovered a body frozen in the ice – a body which turns out, somehow, to still be alive. This extraordinary part of the plot isn’t explored nearly as much as one would like. Though we later discover the strange survivor to have once been the victim of a cult of blood-sacrifice, the other characters seem curiously uninterested in her story other than that it might make some of them rich and famous.

Throughout the whole opera, MacRae’s score glistens with icy melodrama – the pit seeming to become the very ice that traps the ship above it. So much does the orchestra creak and moan and shimmer throughout the whole evening that the frozen sea itself seems to have become another character in the drama.

There was much strong singing, but it would be unfair not to single out Jennifer France singing the part of Ice – the curiously resurrected body. Her singing seemed to be what the word ethereal was coined to describe.

This is a piece with particularly strong music for the female voice and a prolonged section for the trio of the three female singers in the second half of the evening was stunning.

Musically, things are considerably stronger than the plot and there is a curious disjuncture between the first half of the evening and the second. It is as though the creative team were somehow subconsciously rewriting The Flying Dutchman for the first half and then when they realised what they were doing, decided to have a go at rewriting Parsifal for the second.

Without giving away too many of the plot twists, this is a salvation story with no salvation. But therein lies its problem – this is a piece which is all too aware of its own conceit and takes us nowhere new. There are resonances here with the post-Christendom nihilism of some of Flannery O’Conner’s characters but O’Conner tells her stories with considerably more affection for the human soul.

A number of familiar operatic clichés make appearances. Two men roll around the stage fighting one another over the affections of a woman just before the interval – though their affections come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly. Ultimately, there is “…no blessing, no words of comfort” as Ice sings at the very end. The trouble is, we already knew that and we end the evening having been exposed more to concept than story.

It is almost guaranteed that one will come out of a Welsh and Macrae opera talking about what it all meant and even a day later, I find myself still curiously unsure whether my opinion of it has finally settled. All I can remember looking back is being surrounded by ice and that everything around us is breaking up and is bitter cold.

This is opera to chill you to the marrow but it neither promises nor delivers solace.

In that, it is very much a piece of our times.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review appeared first in Scene Alba.


How shall we pray for our elected representatives?

Last Sunday morning there was a service from St Mary’s Cathedral on Radio 4. It was my job to write the script for the service.

To many people’s surprise, the service goes out live, meaning a very early start.

One of the features of doing a live broadcast like that is the necessity of listening to the news at 7 am and 8 am before the service starts at 8.10 am. Should something significant have happened, it is not unreasonable for that to be reflected in some way in the service.

We had a really tough one a few years ago when we were doing the same live broadcast on the weekend on which there was a terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. This had taken place just before we had a rehearsal on the Saturday and it meant rewriting the service throughout the evening to reflect the unfolding news story. One of the clear things that I remember was that I wasn’t allowed to use language to describe what had happened until the newsroom had used it. Throughout a long evening, we went from “unexplained incident” right through to “terrorist attack”.

I also remember a time when the choir had rehearsed the South African national anthem before a broadcast as it seemed entirely possible that Nelson Mandela might die at that time and we had to be ready.

This week there were no sudden incidents. There were no unexpected deaths announced on the news and no particularly shocking incidents in the 24 hours before we went on air.

The script was unchanged – though a huge amount of thought had gone into how we were to pray at this time.

How are we to pray  in any religious community at a time when the country is divided and our elected representatives are thrust so entirely into the spotlight?

How do we pray about Brexit at all?

It seems to me that one of the characteristic things that Christians do is to pray for those  whom we have elected.

I suspect that this means very different things to different people. For me, I think I’m holding them before God and hoping that they will be blessed with wisdom, generosity and understanding. I know others who pray that God with cause elected politicians to implement particular policies but I don’t really see God doing that much so that’s not for me. It does seem reasonable to pray for the places that we are associated with and again that seems a very long tradition indeed.  The book of Jeremiah seems to give a strong steer:

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
Jeremiah 29:7

I rather like that – seeking the welfare of the city seems practical and active alongside the injunction to offer prayers for the city too.

But we don’t always know or agree about where or who we are.

Last Sunday for the radio, I wrote a prayer which went:

Saviour of the world,
we remember all who have decisions to make which affect the lives of others.
We pray for elected representatives in our parliaments in
Strasbourg, Westminster and Holyrood
as decisions are made which will affect all our lives.

We pray too for this great city and pray that you will let Glasgow flourish.

God in your mercy


Now, that’s a fairly uncontroversial prayer to pray here in St Mary’s Cathedral in Glasgow but it is entirely possible that a Brexiteer might have spat out their morning cup of Earl Gray with something of a splutter to hear our European politicians being prayed for.

I think it is significant that Europe has been rather absent from the intercessions of a great many churches. After all, I often hear people in churches praying for the Queen, Ministers of State, the Government,  MSPs at Holyrood, the First Minister, the Prime Minister and so on but I don’t ever remember hearing anyone pray in a church in the UK for Donald Tusk.

If collectively, as a people, we had been more thankful for the EU, would we have prayed more for its welfare?

Praying for leaders can be controversial too. Within the history of Episcopalians in Glasgow there were those who very much didn’t like the Hanoverian monarchs to be prayed for. It was said that at one time people snorted snuff in order to provoke a sneezing fit at the weekly mention of one of the King Georges in the intercessions. In other places, people slammed shut their prayer books at that point.

I don’t really know the historical truth about this, but it was said in Perth when I lived there that St John’s Episcopal Church still regularly prayed for the Queen on a Sunday as they had essentially been a Qualified Chapel, whilst St Ninian’s Cathedral did not normally pray for the Queen on a Sunday as its congregation was formed from the Jacobites (and wannabe Jacobites) of the town who refused to Qualify.

[Please sprinkle a load of Scottish Episcopalian Rose Tinted History Petals upon the last couple of paragraphs as you read them]

Prayer is a complex way in which we define ourselves, even as we couch our prayers as supplications to God.

I remember being in the Middle East in a large congregation once and someone nudged me and pointed to a couple of well dressed men wearing sunglasses. “Look,” I was told, “the secret policemen – they are here every week to make sure we are still praying for the President”.

Prayer – or lack of prayer, can be dangerous.

I like to know my Member of Parliament and other elected representatives. I know what it is like to stand in elections after all. I’ve done it.

When I meet politicians, I sometimes say to them – “Don’t forget we pray for you”.

Generally speaking they seem grateful.

I suspect that thinking thoughtfully, carefully and kindly about our elected politicians right now might be a rather important thing to do.

God bless them.