We are not the masters of our destinies, and any semblance of control we have is a farce, or so Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Greek” would have us believe. The second production of BLO’s nomadic season, it is being staged at the Art Deco palace of the Paramount Center, where rich colors and plush seats stand in stark dissonance with the minimal corrugated-steel set. The adaptation of Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex” against the backdrop of bleak, Thatcher-era England should be a period piece by now, but instead felt disturbingly current in its depiction of a desensitized, turbulent time.
The marketing for “Greek,” this year’s BLO Opera Annex production, emphasized its saturation with sex and violence. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth guided us through the cartoonish dystopia as the alienated, irreverent Eddy, shrugging off his father’s bigotry, a casual Cockney accent molding his sonorous voice into a new shape. Most of the libretto’s pivotal lines were his, spoken instead of sung, peppered with profanities.
The other three singers played all the remaining named roles. Soprano Caroline Worra seemed to delight in an exaggerated yammer in her principal role as Eddy’s Mum, trilling “Maggie is our only hope!” as an eerie photo of the former prime minister appeared onscreen above the stage. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider, in her BLO debut, spiked her voice with a steely edge as the Waitress who becomes Eddy’s wife. However, the best moment for both women arrived when they oozed together in a grotesque burlesque, playing a kinky, two-headed Sphinx that Eddy vanquishes near the end.
Baritone Christopher Burchett, playing Eddy’s father, a short-lived Café Manager, and a Chief of Police, seemed least at home in the bizarre world of “Greek” but had some pleasingly dark vocal moments, namely the first act’s fortune-telling scene. Extra kudos go to Jason Allen’s wig and makeup design, which transformed the youthful Burchett into a convincing Daily Mail devotee with a receding hairline and turned Farnsworth from an angry, rangy young man into Eddy’s older self, a louche yuppie, between acts.
Turnage’s score is a salmagundi, classical modes mixing with jazz, punk, and the broad patter of music-hall vaudeville, all played by an unusually orchestrated chamber ensemble: no violins, three cellos, almost everyone assigned at least one piece of percussion. The musicians, conducted by Andrew Bisantz, were raised one level above the action, giving the impression that the music was pulling the helpless characters’ puppet strings.
The libretto, adapted by Turnage and Jonathan Moore from Steven Berkoff’s stage play of the same title, has the feel of a disjointed dream. Reasons for plot developments are rarely given; they are just so, and scenes of violence played out with dispassionate apathy. Eddy and the Café Manager practically sleepwalked through their fight scene until the final moments, the two belting action verbs at each other in slow motion. After the Manager’s corpse was dragged off, Crider’s Waitress broke the fourth wall with a wry “I didn’t know words could kill,” eagerly wrapping her legs around our antihero scant minutes later and reminiscing about her lost baby before escorting him to bed, a bleating trombone hinting at the activity offstage.
Though the program cover throws Farnsworth’s primal screaming visage at you, the degree to which every interaction was stylized widened the gulf between stage and seats. Immediate intensity only surfaced with Eddy’s anguished a cappella breakdown at the eye-popping end, the first display of unvarnished emotion that demanded full attention. The audience ceased to be a band of voyeurs and was thrown headlong into the inferno of guilt and disgust with him, no longer free to be detached as he looked back on all he’d done and accepted it with a defiant, vulgar shout.
Presented by Boston Lyric Opera. At Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Theater (through Sunday). 617-542- 6772, www.blo.org
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.