By Landry Harlan
BU News Service
Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Greek” is definitely NSFW. It pulsates with enough innuendo, violence and explicit language that the theater’s temperature only goes up as the show goes on. It is so removed visually and stylishly from the foreign, costume-heavy dramas that typically define opera (e.g., “Aida”, “La Boheme”) that it makes you fidget in your seat out of discomfort. That’s a good thing. The energy it emanates with its biting humor and incestuous plot is palpable, creating an original, modern opera that rejects the genre’s stereotypes. If the BLO was looking to make noise and draw in the younger crowd, “Greek” is the kind of middle finger “f**k you” to stiff-necked opera classicists that might just do the trick.
“Greek” is part of BLO’s Opera Annex series that works to present contemporary works that rarely see a large audience. “Greek” quickly became a cult classic after its 1988 premiere at Munich’s Biennale Festival due to being “raw and slightly ugly,” said director Sam Helfrich. “But it’s what I want opera to be: a theatrical experience.”
The opera is reimagined from Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King,” the first of his trilogy where Oedipus reckons with possibly the worst fortune ever told: he will one day kill his father and marry his mother. You would think this would be easy to avoid, but matters aren’t so simple when Oedipus’ parentage is questioned. The same goes for Eddy (Marcus Farnsworth) in “Greek,” a rebellious and aimless punk living in 1980’s East End London with his un-pc father (Christopher Burchett) and harping mother (Caroline Worra) while Thatcher’s portrait looks over in judgement. He ditches the flat after his father reveals his unfortunate fortune and gets in a brawl with a cafe owner (also Burchett) that results in murder and marriage. The dead owner was married to a waitress (Amanda Crider), and hardly a moment passes before they head off stage in the throngs of passion.
The twists and turns aren’t so surprising due to the story’s notoriety, but the execution of Pandora’s box revealing itself in the second half (10 years later) is equal parts hilarious and horrifying. The ludicrousness of it all, even as Eddy self-mutilates in shame, borders on dispassionate. If the work has a flaw, it’s this. Dialogue is often so cold and removed that characters are like icebergs where we only glance the performance, not their inner workings. There can’t be sympathy without any sentiment. The four performers who juggle several characters certainly aren’t to blame. All hit their notes with ease, but Mezzo-soprano Crider is the true star here, making her BLO debut, particularly in a sex-charged fever dream by Eddy where she crawls around and on top of him in a violent lust, accenting her notes as if she were pinning Eddy down with them.
Praise for ingenuity should most be sent to John Conklin, the set designer, who incorporates what looks like a shipping container that opens up to reveal different tableaus from Eddy’s asides to the audience. It fits well with the idea of a prophecy, where images come in fits and starts, distinctly lit and grounded in disparate memories. The orchestra is also placed on top of the set, acting like a kind of god driving the characters to their fates with seesawing strings and palpitating percussion. Minimalism is so popular in design today that it’s become tiresome. Here, it helps tune the production, like a conductor with the orchestra, without being distracting.
“Greek” was sadly only a one-weekend affair, but don’t fret, the rest of BLO’s season is worth your attention. Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” is set for March, another opera with wicked delights on its mind. If it can provoke and entertain as much as “Greek,” then it’s in good hands.