Scottish Opera’s Anthropocene – King’s Theatre

Scottish Opera’s latest work, Anthropocene, is a collaboration between Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh. Its world premiere last Thursday unveiled a thrilling, unusual piece about the ways in which conflicting interests and ideas can be visited upon a single object.

The premise is simple: seven people on a scientific exploration are stranded in Arctic ice, aboard the eponymous ship Anthropocene. It’s not clear what caused the great freeze that has trapped their ship, but the discovery of a woman caught in the ice introduces a supernatural element that throws the team into turmoil, stripping them of their individual roles and emphasising their primal need to survive.

I will admit that I struggled to adjust to the style of the piece. In my opinion, English is not a particularly operatic language, and as such, lines such as “fourteen point six below, Captain” become rather comical. Further, composer MacRae’s deliberate choice not to allow the libretto and the score to align means that the performance has an improvised quality to it.

That being said, some moments do stand out as singularly impressive. Prentice (Jeni Bern) and Ice (Jennifer France) wonder at the scientific impossibility of Ice’s continued existence, and they weave ghostly harmonies that embody the fear, curiosity, and magic of the situation. France has remarkable control over her voice, at times driving up the melody into a scream that reflects the urgency of Ice’s message.

It’s this message that makes the piece so intriguing. Alex Reedijk, General Director of Scottish Opera, is clear that Anthropocene ‘does not make climate change the central issue’, but ‘forms the context for the opera’. The production makes good work of showing the transience of our environment, and how fragile we are as humans within it. Set design and costuming cleverly show how crisis reduces us to living, breathing beings, rather than scientists, entrepreneurs, or journalists. As the plot unfolds, colour and individuality are drained from the set, showing humanity’s shared needs and fears. The bleached set is reminiscent both of the bleakness of the Arctic, and a mental asylum, which is the perfect setting for the chilling events that follow (pardon the pun).

A powerful element of the piece is the individual weight that each voice carries. Every character has their own motivations for being aboard the ship (except perhaps Daisy, who just seems to be tagging along). When Ice arrives, the real desires of the company are revealed. For Harry (Mark Le Brocq), it’s pride and money, Charles (Stephen Gadd) is after scientific renown, and Miles (Benedict Nelson) will stop at nothing to get his big scoop. These conflicting goals revolve around Ice and how she is implicated in their situation. An interesting element is the inexplicability of her survival. This, coupled with the story she tells, toys with the team’s minds and leads to an utterly horrifying conclusion.

It’s clear how much effort was put into the conception and design of this piece. The set is meticulously created; the singers are extremely strong; the climax of the story is sure to haunt the audience far past the last curtain. Unfortunately, the pacing of the tale is off, the discord between libretto and score is not controlled, and the gore comes off comical. I’d be tempted to suggest that this might make a better play than it would an opera (despite the incredible and powerful contrast created by the single un-sung line, ‘what do we do now?’).

As it stands, however, Anthropocene is a thought-provoking piece on the impact of humans on their environment and on each other. With some revision and some more realistic fake blood, this would make an incisive examination of our species’ relationship to science, magic, and ice.

PHOTOS: James Glossop

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