Scottish Opera Anthropocene is at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh for two performances only (Thursday 31st January & Saturday 2nd February), and it is one of those productions that you are either going to love or hate, no middle ground here I think. For myself, I have genuinely mixed thoughts on this one as this type of production that pushes the horizons of what many people will consider an opera to be is part of the reason that I like Scottish Opera so much as a company. Scottish Opera could forever walk the safety line that is the well known operas, but they also take artistic and commercial risks with new or lesser known works like this one and, whatever the outcome, they should be applauded for their vision. Balancing these thoughts for me though is the problem that for me, for many reasons, this production is simply not working.
This is the fourth collaboration between composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh and here our title “Anthropocene” comes from two sources. One, the unofficial name for the current geological period that we all live in marked by humanity’s ability to have significant and lasting impact (usually for the bad) upon Earth’s landscape and ecological systems. The second is the name of the scientific survey ship funded by industrialist Harry King that is currently collecting ice core samples from North Greenland –“King’s Anthropocene”. Our story really starts here when a member of the expedition not only finds a body frozen in the ice, but that when brought back to the survey ship, a living, breathing young woman known only as “Ice” emerges unharmed from the melted cube of her entombment. At that self-same moment of initial discovery, rapidly decreasing temperatures turn the waters around the survey ship into ice, and a delay in leaving quickly enough traps Harry King, his daughter and the small crew where they are, now stranded with no hope of escape until many months later when the waters thaw out once more.
“Ice”, we find out, has been frozen for an unknown number of years and was once part of a native Inuit tribe. Remarkably though, Ice understands modern English language very well both as a listener and a speaker. Jennifer France as “Ice” performs this role very well, displaying along the way some serious vocal abilities but, unfortunately for Jennifer, “Ice”, like all the other characters here, seems to be one that has little to interest me as an audience member and seems too often stand alone with little connectivity to any other characters. Multiple short acts and curtain drops are also not helping with any sense of continuity in this story-line. There are also a few puzzles for me in this script that never seem to get answered, too many lose threads in the plot.
All of Scottish Opera’s team on-stage put in solid and professional performances, but they are fighting a story line that in trying to merge current ecological issues such as melting polar caps, scientific facts, Inuit beliefs and rituals achieves nothing with clarity and ends up as stuck in the Ice as “King’s Anthropocene”. There is also, for me, too often an unnatural feel to the dialogue that just seems not to flow well at times. This is a pity, because “Ice” is a character with so many possibilities and the opportunity to blend native Inuit beliefs into our story as a warning to our modern way of life is so often lost here. There are times when it does seem that our cast are performing rather than enjoying their roles or the story here.
Something about “Anthropocene” is reminding me of all of those science fiction B movies of the 50s and 60s that I love so much, but without any of the charm.
On a more positive note though, the music by Stuart MacRae is very good, very atmospheric and I would buy this as a score tomorrow if it was ever released.
Our full cast is as follows
Ice - Jennifer France
Professor Prentice - Jeni Bern
Charles - Stephen Gadd
Miles - Benedict Nelson
Harry King - Mark Le Brocq
Captain Ross - Paul Whelan
Vasco - Anthony Gregory
Daisy - Sarah Champion
Review by Tom King