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Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Greek’ is back after 30 years — and its tattoos still aren’t smeared

Mark-Anthony Turnage redefined British opera with Greek, his 80-minute updating of the Oedipus myth to modern, working-class London, with a raucous score and a perversely happy ending. But that was in a different world: 1988. Nowadays, Thomas Adès seems to be the defining composer of British opera, like it or not. And when Greek arrived at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Dec. 5-9 in a production by Scottish Opera/Opera Ventures, I imagined it like some seriously aging hipster whose many once-edgy tattoos are turning to mud.

I was throughly, and ecstatically, wrong.

The libretto was based on the play of the same name by Steven Berkoff, whose experimental theatrical stylization was always engaging but never seemed to lead anywhere. You could argue that Berkoff didn’t truly pave the way to Greek the opera, whose artistic allegiances seemed more in line with British theater’s new wave of less-filtered authors — plays such as Patrick Marber’s Closer showed the world what was really going on while maintaining literary integrity. (Too bad that this new wave degenerated into artistic acting-out with the likes of Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking.)
In opera, Adès has since stepped into the central place in Britain, though Turnage has continued commanding notice with every new work, even ones with a limited shelf life such as Anna Nicole, which tried to make Anna Nicole Smith into some sort of iconic mutation of the American Dream (shoes too big for her to fill, I’m afraid).

Flash forward to BAM last Sunday …

At the start of Greek, the Joe Hill-Gibbins production promised a jokey satire — not a good one, but something that makes fun of the supposedly dopey, vulgar working class in ways we’ve seen a zillion times before. When Eddy (short for Oedipus) first arrived onstage in a bright red jogging suit, you knew that costumes and stage demeanor were going to have more exaggeration than truth.

And then the Turnage score took over. As the opera follows Eddy from his adoptive parents to the slaying of his biological father, confrontation with the Sphinx, and falling madly in love with what turns out to be his mother, the music in each dramatic situation goes to Turnage’s own personal extremes. (I was reminded at one point why I was once downright afraid of ever meeting this composer.) Words are sung, shouted, or spoken with a solid sense of conveying their meaning. In the orchestration, anything can happen: penetrating unison winds, shrieking clashes of harmony, and then a bare-bones harp. Polytonality isn’t always the best way to develop a character musically, but in this case it was a way of saying everything Turnage could about a given situation or character.

Such maximum heterogeneousness can become a free-for-all, but Turnage’s dramatic intuition is so keen here that Greek never seems disorganized, even in some intensely out-there moments that convey police riots, plagues, etc. The orchestra is a chameleon of a participant, most conventionally acting as the stories’ frame but, in its best moments, conspiring with the voices to give the characters all kinds of heightened effects, often by adding an extra dissonant voice or two to what is being sung.

One of my favorite parts was the Sphinx confrontation, which always seems to draw the most imaginative music out of composers, since nobody can really imagine how such a creature would sing. For Turnage, the Sphinx was two women who often sang together-but-not-quite, almost as if one was an off-kilter echo of the other. (The libretto here is particularly witty when the Sphinx admits to being weary of having eaten so many men that day.) In this production, however, the two Sphinx women kept holding up mask-like cardboard cutouts showing how the Sphinx might’ve looked in the eyes of Eddy/Oedipus, and the image didn’t have much to say.

The four-person cast — Alex Otterburn as Eddy, with Susan Bullock, Allison Cook and Andrew Shore playing everybody else — mostly maintained a sense of humanity amid all the burlesque. And the Gibbons production, in all fairness, stopped kidding around at key points. The pain of the Eddy/Oedipus’ adoptive parents came through, showing how far they were in over their heads in raising a child of such questionable origins while wanting the best for him.

The bare-bones set design by Johannes Schütz was a simple flat surface with two doorways that revolved in effective ways, conveying the passage of time and geography. Also palpable was the sense of danger in the everyday world as the revolving set threatened to hit singers if they weren’t standing in exactly the right places.

But this opera requires a production reflecting a more subtle understanding of what Greek is and is not. And I think that, in the future, Greek is more likely to get what it needs. The opera isn’t simply a youthful success: it’s one of those blessed moments in the history of opera when a potent artist gets his or her vision into tight focus and holds it there in ways that just don’t happen later on. I call it unknowing audaciousness, when the author doesn’t really monitor what is coming out; it just happens, and sometimes in a way that never happens like that again.

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