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Shadow of a gun

02/16/2000 -  and 19, 24, 26, 29 February, 3 March 2000
Mark-Anthony Turnage The Silver Tassie
Gerald Finley (Harry Heegan), John Graham Hall (Sylvester), Anne Howells (Mrs Heegan), Sarah Connolly (Susie), Vivian Tierney (Mrs Foran), David Kempster (Teddy), Leslie John Flanagan (Barney), Mary Hegarty (Jessie), Mark Le Brocq (Dr Maxwell), Gwynne Howell (The Croucher), Bradley Daley (Staff Officer), Jozik Koc (Corporal)
English National Opera Chorus (men's voices), English National Opera Orchestra
Paul Daniel (conductor), Bill Bryden (director)

The ENO's programme for Mark-Anthony Turnage's new opera (which has a libretto adapted by Amanda Holden from Sean O'Casey's play) includes quotes from the officer-class war poets Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen. But the action is focused on Harry Heegan, a working-class Dublin athlete. The music and language in the first instance are those of his friends, and of the generality of working-class British soldiers in the trenches. And Turnage's sense of drama is informed by the cinema and television, and by jazz sets and rock concerts, rather than by traditional theatrical rhetoric.

Turnage and Holden's four act structure is intricately and symmetrically structured and tightly controlled, packing a mass of realistic and symbolic ideas into a two-hour work that never flags. The four acts can be seen as symphonic in form: a first act with two themes that are stated and intertwined, a slow expressionist second act, a dark and frantic third act and a final act that consists of a medley of dance forms and dramatic gesture. But by breaking the first act at Harry's entrance and trimming a little, the opera would make an effective old-fashioned five-act ninety-minute movie.

There's some common ground with Turnage's first opera Greek in the pleasure in vernacular wit, sporting rhythms and popular music and the irresistable combination of originality and dramatic directness in the music. But there's a serious and moving use of traditional Irish and Scottish songs, and less direct humour in the word setting. For example, Susie the irritatingly pious neighbour repeats the phrase "God is watching you" at every opportunity during most of the first act. But Turnage plays it for laughs a lot less than you might expect from reading the libretto. And there's no tragi-comic excess, and little low humour, in the central story of Harry Heegan's physical and moral destruction by the war.

Harry, home on leave from the war, returns to his parents' home with a silver cup his team has won at football. He celebrates with his friend Barney and fiancée Jessie, then leaves for the war with Barney and the wife-beating upstairs neighbour Teddy. The three men merge into the mass of soldiers in the second act, who fear death and ache from boredom and alienation. After the war, Harry is paralysed from the waist down in hospital, and Jessie is now with Barney, who has a VC for saving Harry's life. Teddy is also blind, and totally dependent on his wife. At a dance in the final act, Harry breaks down with bitterness and hurls the cup to the ground as Jessie and Barney dance.

The director Bill Bryden was involved in the work from early on, and it was workshopped extensively. The results in terms of the depth of the performances, matching the cinematic quality of the drama and music, are outstanding. Gerald Finley's central performance as Harry, euphoric jock in the first act, bitter wreck in the third and barely relieved in his suffering by his outburst in the last act, was towering, physically wrenching at times. His singing of the title air, by Robert Burns, was heartbreaking in the first act, but his cracked fragments of song in the later acts were even more so. Paul Kempster as Teddy, the bully reduced to dependency was almost as powerful, beginning loathesome and ending a tragic match for Harry, both of them incomplete. Their shared hymn in the act, praying for what they'd each lost and could not get back, was almost unbearably moving. Gwynne Howell as the Croucher, the mysterious watcher in act two who quotes Scripture ironically over the men in the trenches and musically at least takes the place of Harry in this act, was also deeply expressive, though his voice is all shot away.

In a rich ensemble cast, John Graham Hall, always a brilliant character actor, made Sylvester, Harry's proud and decent but ineffectual dad, into a sadly comic old geezer far from simple caricature, Vivian Tierney also got completely inside Mrs Foran, Teddy's wife who walks into door but survives somehow. Sarah Connolly had a powerful presence as Susie, the religious girl from downstairs who initially fancies Harry but who becomes a nurse and pairs off casually with a cynical doctor, spurning the damaged Harry. The characterization of Susie seems less rich than the others -- both her religious obsessiona and her flirting iwth the doctor are monotone -- though she is thematically important in reflecting the transformation of conventional morality by the war.

The set in the first two acts was arranged around a big gun (a larger than lifesize copy of a real first world war gun). The Croucher and the chorus sat silently at the back during the first act, behind Harry's parents' home constructed of flimsy flats, and moved into life as the gun turned round to reveal what it was. The soldiers in the second act formed solid blocks, reflecting their repetitive music, which is somewhat similar to the sailor's chorus ("This is the moment") in Billy Budd. The hospital and dance hall were also very simple flats with basic furniture, which highlighted the enormity of the set with the gun.

The ENO's last commission, Dr Ox's Experiment went down well with clubbers but not with more traditional opera audiences. The Met's "modern classic" commission this year, The Great Gatsby managed to be too conventional for critics and too modern for the Met's core audience. Turnage, who says he hates opera on the whole, has produced a work that is a classic in the sense of being impeccably balanced and serious, but which is emotionally direct and accessible to a wide range of audiences. Although only schedule for six performances at the ENO this season, this one will stay in the repertoire.

The Silver Tassie is a co-production with Dallas Opera. The ENO performances on 29 February and 3 March are being recorded for BBC television, to be broadcast at a later date.

H.E. Elsom



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