The Silver Tassie at the Barbican review *****

The Silver Tassie

Barbican Hall, 10th November 2018

  • Mark-Anthony Turnage (composer)
  • Amanda Holden (libretto)
  • Ashley Riches – Harry
  • Sally Matthews – Susie
  • Brindley Sherratt – The Croucher
  • Claire Booth – Mrs Foran
  • Marcus Farnsworth – Teddy
  • Alexander Robin Baker – Barney
  • Louise Alder – Jessie
  • Susan Bickley – Mrs Heegan
  • Mark le Brocq – Sylvester
  • Anthony Gregory – Dr Maxwell/Staff Officer
  • Andre Rupp – Corporal
  • Finchley Children’s Music Group
  • BBC Singers
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra
  • Ryan Wrigglesworth – conductor
  • Kenneth Richardson – stage director

B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. I never saw Mark-Anthony Turnage’s second full scale opera when it was first performed in early 2000 at the ENO. On the basis of this semi-staged performance from the BBCSO as part of the In Remembrance weekend this was a terrible omission on my part for it is an extraordinary work both musically, and, given the strength of Amanda Holden’s libretto, dramatically. It is intensely powerful and moving even without a full set and staging. It beggars belief that it has not been revived since 2002, (and that it missed out on a run in Dallas thanks to political sensitivities). 

It is constructed as a symphony in four acts, Home, War, Hospital and Dance. Harry Heegan is about to return to the family flat after a football match with his best mate Barney and girlfriend Jessie. Mum and Dad are intensely proud of their son who is about to head off to the war. Next door neighbour Susie joins the party, banging on about God. Mrs Foran from upstairs also turns up escaping abusive husband Teddy. The Silver Tassie, a cup with much significance appears, the men go to war full of optimism. The War act is primarily choral preceded by the mythic Croucher, representing, I think, the war dead and intoning Old Testament-ish doom. An officer complains at the doctors in the Red Cross station. A football game is delayed as the battle begins. The story then switches to the Hospital where an angry Harry is now paralysed, Teddy blinded and Jessie, who refuses to see Harry, is now coupled up with Barney, who saved Harry’s life. The final act sees Harry and Teddy spit out their pain and bitterness at those who still have their futures at the communal dance. 

The opera is based on Sean O’Casey’s eponymous plan and it is therefore we who have to thank for the gripping drama. Whilst it is never made explicit, O’Casey intended that the Heegan family, and the rest of the community, should hail from the East Wall, a working class district of Dublin, adding further pungency to the message of the play (and opera) because, at that time, Ireland was still part of the UK and the republican movement was divided on whether the country should be involved in the war. So as some young men like Harry, Barney and Teddy headed off to war others prepared for insurrection at home. 

O’Casey’s play was rejected by WB Yeats, then head honcho at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when it was submitted in 1928, reflecting its political sensitivity. This was after the success of his first three major plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. So it premiered at the Apollo in London’s West End. There have been a fair few plays which rail at the futility of war and its consequences on the individuals who fight in it, but I doubt many match the raw power of The Silver Tassie. 

So Amanda Holden, (to be clear not the airhead judge on BGT), and M-AT had something monumental to work with. Even so, and in no way intending to downplay Ms Holden’s contribution which provides M-AT with multiple opportunities to show off his trademark stylistic jagged juxtapositions, it is the score that takes the breath away. M-AT had already shown his dramatic flair in his first opera Greek, and his compositional skill with orchestral pieces such as Three Screaming Popes, Momentum, Drowned Out, Dispelling the Fears and Silent Cities, especially when it came to percussion and brass, but The Silver Tassie is on another level.

The symphonic structure is inspired by mentor Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids, with the first act setting out the main ideas and themes, the second the Adagio slow movement, brought to life by the large scale choral scenes (echoing the more Expressionist feel of the act in SO’C’s play), the third a Scherzo and the last act a “dance” finale with “off stage” band. This structure offers rhythmic backbone and plenty of tunes derived from song, (including Robert Burns’s own Silver Tassie), and dance, as well as repeated motifs, which make it easy to follow and show off MA-T’s uncanny ability to capture the emotional interior of the characters. There are episodes of rich orchestral colour but there are also plenty of more economic orchestration.  The score should give the singers plenty of space, but just to make sure the cast were miked, (though M-AT, a couple of rows in front of me, needed to dash up to the sound desk to get the balance right early on).  The second and fourth acts are up there with the best I have ever heard on an opera stage. Even allowing for the fact that this wasn’t an opera stage. 

Sometimes this semi-staging lark can leave singers looking a little awkward unsure of how much to commit to performance versus voice. Costuming can also, sometimes, appear incongruous. Not here though, at east once the first act go going. There were some outstanding vocal performances, notably for me from Sally Matthews and Claire Booth, and Marcus Farnsworth as Teddy was very persuasive. But baritone Ashley Riches as Harry, even from my two perches (side stalls first half, back of circle second), was bloody marvellous not just in his singing but also in the way, pre and post wheelchair, he projected Harry’s exuberance and then his pain into the whole auditorium. 

Now I have nothing to compare it to but, given just how amazing this was, I have to assume that Ryan Wrigglesworth and the BBCSO, and the BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group (complete with ensemble writhing) got as close as possible to the heart of the music. 

You can listen to it for a couple more weeks on BBC Radio Opera on 3. Do yourself a favour and do so. 

And can I beg the ENO to find a way and time to revive this. With Mr Wrigglesworth on the podium. I will chip in a few quid if it helps. 

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