Anthropocene

In the Arctic Circle, far north of Greenland and farther from its home port, the research ship Anthropocene lies in the ice, a storm coming in faster than the experienced Captain Ross can fathom, yet with three members of the team still out the ice they cannot leave.

Beside him stands Lord Harry King, his pride swelling even as the temperatures drop from minus twenty to minus thirty as fast as the crew can count, believing that the Anthropocene will return with evidence of the origins of life trapped in the ice core samples, a triumph which will guarantee his legacy.

His daughter Daisy and reporter Miles Black arriving back even as the ship becomes icebound and trapped, it was Professor Prentice’s husband Charles who delayed their return having found something frozen in the ice, a perfect human figure which he has cut out and dragged back to the vessel which as it thaws returns inexplicably to life, bring strife to the crew of the Anthropocene.

Presented by Scottish Opera, Anthropocene is the fourth collaboration between composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh, directed by Matthew Richardson and conducted by Stuart Stratford, opening with an icy prelude swirling up from the orchestra pit as the characters assemble on the deck above and maintain their fearful watch.

The drama having aspects of both science fiction and horror, an ambitious but foolish quest to understand the origins of life, the impossible find awakening, the terrible events that befall the expedition, their communications severed, rescue impossible and forced to hunt seals to survive, the premise quickly becomes as frozen and directionless as the Anthropocene itself.

MacRae’s score conveying mystery and ominous foreboding with passages which echo the twinkling of Williams’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the rattle of Goldsmith’s Alien, the thundering discord of Stravinsky is never far from mind in the dramatic passages, yet the sung parts are resolutely and defiantly tuneless, particularly the unpleasant dirges shrieked in upper ranges by Jeni Bern and Jennifer France as Professor Prentice and “Ice.”

The pacing glacial despite the many subjects excavated, the minimal plot does not sustain two and a half hours and is the standard operatic format writ large and bold, ambition, betrayal, blood and more blood, the obvious stated multiple times, the needless second act only a recap of the first with added recrimination, and the larger questions raised but never addressed beyond the superficial: Ice exists because the plot needs her to.

Every conversation about maintenance to the satellite dish and argument about which male ego claims precedence over Ice being sung rather than spoken does not automatically elevate a tedious work the to status of high art, and with the repeated pleas to the frozen seas for deliverance from the albatross they have hung around their necks more tortuous than thrilling Anthropocene is not even an entertaining disappointment.

Following the Theatre Royal, Glasgow and the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Anthropocene continues to the Hackney Empire, London

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