Review: AntiMidas or, Bankers in Hades, The Opera

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The collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy, the unemployment and emigration that followed, the cuts in vital services and payments, the boarded-up windows, the ghost estates, the buddleia that sprouts where dreams of riches or steady employment died, not to mention the commitment made in our name, and enforced painfully in our daily lives, that speculators must be winners – all of this seems to have triggered seething anger, resentment and cynicism, but no flaming of popular resistance, no widespread demand for political or social transformation.

Late last year, it was reported that an opera about the banking meltdown was about to open in the Samuel Beckett Theatre in Dublin. Was this to be the unlikely spark that would light the flame? Would Dublin on the twelfth of December 2013 be like Brussels on the 25th of August in 1830, when (so the story goes) the patriotic fervor voiced in Daniel-Francois Auber’s opera The Mute Girl of Portici (La muette de Portici) – set in Spanish-ruled 17th-century Naples  –  so stirred certain members of the audience that they rose up spontaneously and (after a lively bust-up with more conservative elements) poured out into the streets, lit the flame of resistance, drove the Dutch out and so created independent Belgium. Sadly, this heart-warming story is a little too good to be true. The audience participation, as it were, was in fact pre-scripted by the revolutionaries and the conclusion of the opera can be read as arguing that popular revolution needs guidance from a wiser and socially superior leadership.  Nonetheless, it is very likely that some ordinary citizens unsupplied with revolutionary scripts were spontaneously moved and, rising from their seats, did join the revolution. What’s more, by leaving before the last act, it was as if they were, in the words of James H Billington, ‘in search of their own ending’.

In the cold or watery light of January 2014, it is clear that AntiMidas, or, Bankers in Hades, the opera that played for three days in December has not triggered a revolution or significant social unrest. So, if we didn’t have the excitement of incipient revolution, was there excitement of any other kind at the Samuel Beckett Theatre in December when Trinity-based Evangelia Rigaki’s opera played? Happily, there was. Let’s set aside matters of definition (who can say what is or isn’t opera today?) and focus on the pleasures that were on offer. What we witnessed was almost cartoonish – a morality tale or parable in which the incarnation of the lust for gold, AntiMidas the supremely arrogant money-maker, was hurried towards his fall by an alliance of powerful enemies to a cackling commentary from a chorus of Media.

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WN (Bill) Herbert’s slangy, catchy, quick-rhyming libretto – the term doesn’t feel quite right in this context – was in keeping with the rest of the production: no undue solemnity was shown towards Greek mythology.  As the title suggests, the opera is a variation on the story of Midas, who turned everything he touched into gold. The AntiMidas of the opera, the world’s richest man and a banker, appears to have the golden touch, though he is – as he tells his wife and daughter – having perplexing dreams. In fact, his arrogance brings him the enmity of Pluto, god of death and the underworld, who gets Cloacina, the goddess of filth (or of the sewer, as her name suggests), already busy wrecking the world banking system, to put a curse on him: everything he touches will turn, not to gold, but to something less solid, browner and far smellier…  The results are catastrophic for him – and, hardly surprisingly, for those around him. Desperate for a solution, he follows his daughter Zoe’s advice and, renouncing capitalism’s fixation on acquisitiveness for its own sake, goes to Hades to plead directly for mercy from Pluto. His pleadings are in vain. When Pluto summons Zoe, the humbled superbanker, now realising that love is the value that really matters, rushes to embrace his daughter. But in momentarily forgetting his power, he turns his beloved daughter to gold. He has lost everything.

Though Greek mythology might inspire thoughts of earnestness, the whole enterprise was characterized by energy and lightness of touch.  A combination of dramatic lighting and versatile use of stage space meant that the action could move fluently from home to office to hell – and back, where required. A screen (tilted at an angle to the action) flashed an additional level of visual/verbal commentary at the audience.

Ancient mythology is probably best treated either with a seriousness and commitment that carry all before them or with a frank acknowledgement of the distance between that world and ours. AntiMidas takes the second option and is narrated in an almost gleeful manner. Effective satire cannot, by definition, be incomprehensible: it wouldn’t make sense to mangle words written for immediate understanding and appreciation. Evangelia Rigaki – Greek herself, though resident in Britain before coming to Ireland – does not, like some composers, treat words as meaningless raw material. If some phrases get lost here and there, as voices suddenly hit a shrieking upper register or plunge towards the deep, the narrative line remains clear. People unused to contemporary classical singing might hear some of the more dramatic vocal effects (and harsher instrumental textures) as aggressive or disturbing, but the strongly accented percussive rhythms (along with the stage effects already mentioned) help to maintain focus on the action and to draw back the wandering ear.  We were also treated to chanting, whisperings and various playful vocal effects.

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Opera often flirts with kitsch or with the florid. AntiMidas provided spectacle but, in all areas, it was economical in its means of doing so. Thus, the four singers (Tyrone Landau, Tamsin Dalley, Catherine May and Owen Gilhooley)  had to display acting talent as well, since they played multiple and contrasting parts and needed to dash to change costumes between scenes. All the performers were more than up to the task.  (Catherine May’s voice was for me the most appealing purely as voice, but this may be an injustice to the others.) The ‘orchestra’ comprised just five musicians and though Laura Marín Canellas (violin), Cormac Ó Briain (cello), Daniel Parkin (flute) and Jon Clifford (trombone) all played a part, the percussionist (Richard O’Donnell, ever-calm amid the storm) had the dominant role, moving with ease from delicate pinging to solid thumping, with numerous diversions along the way.

Anyone familiar with what some technically adept, flexible and open-eared improvising percussionists (Paul Lytton, Raymond Strid, Tatsuya Nakatani , to name but three – and why not throw in David Lacey, of these parts?) can do with a few stray objects and a basic kit is likely to be taken aback at the lack of percussive  imagination shown by some contemporary composers. Rigaki, however, relishes the opportunity to work up multi-textured rhythmic patterns.

Overall, AntiMidas was a lively, effective and enjoyable production – with great credit due to the whole team behind the scenes. In that sense, there was nothing to complain about. But it was also – though Gilbert and Sullivan lovers might not have recognized it as such – light opera, in the style of the twenty-first century: humour, technical and technological proficiency, a storyline, characters and just a hint of politics. But, with its nasty bankers, its sleazy media, and its easy polarity between love and money, did AntiMidas take some easy options? Intellectually or politically, did it offer much more than the smug inanities of Ian Hislop on Have I got News for you? It did perhaps, but not enough.  A section of the director’s note reads as follows:

“A new opera is a complex chemistry of elements – we have all, in our various ways, sought to bring you a sharp, witty, perhaps painful, black comedy. To provoke thoughts and reactions, both musical and dramatic (and even perhaps political).”

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The slightly coy, reassuring tone of that bracketed phrase points to a certain safeness that characterized the overall project. At the end of AntiMidas, as the daughter turns to gold and falls dead to the ground, you could feel or imagine a stab of desolation, but the effect was momentary as it wasn’t supported by the energy of the opera. This was not grand opera with its loving lingering over pain. That is only one of many ways in which a play or an opera can affect the audience and stir their minds or imaginations.  But what were we left with after this performance, good as it was? Given the musical and other talent on show, it was a little disappointing that there was not more to take away and replay and wonder about in subsequent days. Rigaki has worked happily with this team before. Perhaps they all know too well what they can do. At the risk of being presumptuous, I can’t help wondering if moving into less comfortable or familiar territory (working with a completely different librettist, for example) might not stretch Rigaki’s talents more fruitfully and offer the audience a little more of a challenge too.

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