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Seamus Heaney The Burial at Thebes

Music: Dominique Le Gendre
Director: Derek Walcott

Antigone: Idit Arad
Ismene: Andrea Baker
Creon: Brian Green
Guard: John Joyce

Manning Camerata/Peter Manning

The Globe, London; 11 October 2008 - and touring!

How do a group of intelligent people, including two Nobel literature laureates no less - eminent poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott [pictured] - persuade themselves to collude in, and stick with, an operatic non-starter like Dominique Le Gendre's The Burial at Thebes, the first "opera" seen on the Globe Theatre's stage, open to the elements?

You can see the two great poets during rehearsals (Walcott here directing) musing together respectfully on a video clip, hoping for the best...at http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/interactive/2008/oct/10/classicalmusicandopera-theatre

As a verse play, Heaney's take on the Sophocles Antigone/Ismene tale of prohibited burial gained respectful approval, but this uninterrupted 105-minutes Caribbean recreation of most of its words (Dominique Le Gendre was born in Trinidad) has nothing to offer today's groundlings who filled The Globe, officiously brought up onto their feet by the marshalls whenever they sank to the floor. Half way through, by which time there was a gradual hemorrhaging of the audience towards the Exits, we sacrificed our seats to two of them.

That there was no compositional talent on offer had become clear during the brief, dull introduction, with strings nearly unheard against prevailing wind and brass, and this was confirmed by the first stretches of verse, mangled in the singing by the banality of the music which subtracted its meaning unerringly. For long stretches it did no more than mark time, chugging along with repetitive instrumental figures.

With a Willard White, the despot might have held attention, but Brian Green was not of that ilk. Only John Joyce made a moment of theatrical life and engaged the audience as the comic Guard duty bound to report the "crime" which carried an automatic death sentence; his narration was given to an Actor, whilst the music was mercifully silent...

We could not wait to learn whether those who stayed the course felt themselves duly rewarded for their fortitude; at least the Gods were benign for its disastrous premiere during an Indian Summer remission of our rainy 2008.

This theatrical turkey makes a sad commentary on the UK's "everyone can be a composer" and "write an opera and you've arrived" philosophies; the obverse is our belated acquaintance with important composers abroad, q.v. Tim Rutherford-Johnson on the Philharmonia's Music for Today series.

Enough to end by saying that the experiment did at least demonstrate that The Globe, a jewel amongst London's theatres, is perfectly suitable as a venue for appropriately conceived opera, and with the hope that another, with better matched composer, librettist and director, will be mounted there next year.

Peter Grahame Woolf

See Erica Jeal in The Guardian and Richard Morrison in The Times, both *****
- - two Nobel laureates buried in bathos (Sunday Times)
and concurring opinions in the Telegraph
and Evening Standard "Nobel Prizes, it seems, do not an opera make."