The BBC Symphony’s Total Immersion weekend looked like a conceptual nightmare on paper – a contemporary music festival to commemorate the First World War? – but this centrepiece proved inspired programming. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s The Silver Tassie, based on the 1928 anti-war play by Seán O’Casey, libretto by Amanda Holden, was written in the late 90s for English National Opera. It was soon taken up by companies in Ireland and Germany, but the most recent performance anywhere was the ENO revival in 2002. It is a big opera, and no doubt expensive to stage, but, as this performance demonstrated, it is a strong and musically compelling work.
The story, of an enthusiastic footballer crippled on service in the Great War, then ostracised by his community, wouldn’t seem an obvious vehicle for Turnage’s jazz-inflected, propulsive Modernism. Turnage makes the most of the musical episodes in the story, but these are always well integrated into the music. The whole score is alive with invention and energy, and Turnage finds an ideal pace and span for almost every scene.
This was a concert performance, with a minimal staging concept, directed by Kenneth Richardson. Singers sang from stands, and there were a few props, most notably a football trophy and a wheelchair. Some lighting effects and dry ice were included too, but Richardson mostly trusted the music to provide atmosphere and drama.
Act I begins at home, and its real kitchen sink drama (Dublin, we presume, but no Irish accents). Harry and Barney (AshleyRiches, pictured above, and Alexander Robin Baker) return victorious from a football championship, their trophy the eponymous Silver Tassie. Meanwhile, Harry’s parents (Mark le Brocq and Susan Bickley) have to deal with a domestic episode upstairs, sheltering Mrs Foran (Claire Booth) from her abusive husband Teddy (Marcus Farnsworth), before Harry, Barney and Teddy all leave for the front. Throughout all this, Susie (Sally Matthews), a god-fearing neighbour, dishes out biblical condemnations of all involved. Strong casting all round here. Ashley Riches commands the stage. His baritone isn’t huge, but his tone is focussed and his singing always expressive. Marcus Farnsworth is suitably menacing, and Claire Booth suitably frenetic. Sally Matthews is luxury casting as Susie, as is Louise Adler as Harry’s girlfriend, Jessie. Turnage engages closely with the text, his vocal writing working closely with the poetry of O’Casey’s lines. He was helped by excellent diction from the cast (amplified to counter balance problems, but never to distraction).
None of the leads appear in Act II, which takes place in the trenches and instead featured the gentlemen of the BBC Singers. The act opens with a monologue from ‘The Croucher’ (an excellent Brindley Sherratt, standing in for an indisposed John Tomlinson), a death-like figure, casting dark prophesies in Old Testament verses. The whole act is beautifully surreal, especially as Turnage gives it an eerily quiet mood, most of the dialogue given to singers in the chorus, who all handle it well. A boys’ choir (Finchley Children’s Music Group) makes an appearance as stretcher-bearers, another surreal twist, and the act culminates with a game of football. This was the one scene that could have used more staging, although having the boys reacting as a crowd of enthusiastic spectators made for a convincing substitute.
Act III takes place in a military hospital. Harry is now in a wheelchair and Teddy has been blinded. Harry is bitter, and Turnage twists his musical ideas, now expressed with spite and irony. He manages it, and with impressive subtlety. Only one section feels over-wrought, the end of the act, where it becomes clear that Jessie has left Harry for Barney – a pivotal moment in the story, but drawn out too far in the music. In the final act, all the characters return for a dance, and emotions come to a head. Turnage employs an onstage band, another challenge for concert performance. But the instruments are grouped separately stage right, and the effect still works. All the lead characters are now transformed: Harry is bitter, Teddy has become sympathetic, Barney has become brutal, and Susie has lost her inhibitions. There is plenty of melodrama here too, but Turnage focuses as much on these transformed figures, compellingly rendered by all the cast.
Ryan Wigglesworth is a dynamic conductor, but not flamboyant, and his agile but controlled technique is ideal for Turnage’s score. He also has plenty of opera experience, which shines through in his pacing and keen communication with the singers. An excellent performance too from the BBC Symphony Orchestra: focussed, precise and always well-balanced. They were as much the stars in this long-awaited and richly deserved revival. Too bad it was a one-off.
This performance was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and is available to listen on demand for 29 days at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m00013zc