For their fourth operatic collaboration, composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh, who first collaborated as part of Scottish Opera’s 5:15 experiment, have created a tense thriller, set on a research ship drilling into ancient layers of ice in arctic Greenland.
The crew of the ship discover a human body frozen in the ice. Then the sea freezes over, trapping them for the long dark winter. The scene is set for brutal conflict between the competing elements on the ship.
The arctic is the perfect setting for MacRae’s strong, dissonant score. His clever use of quarter-tones at the extremes of the scale and exotic percussion help build the tension and create a sound picture of an all-white environment, lit by the Northern Lights.
His vocal lines add weight to Welsh’s libretto, from the elaborate for Mark Le Brocq, as expedition backer, Harry King to the warmth of Jeni Bern, as Professor Prentice, whose husband finds the ice woman.
This is a larger scale piece for MacRae and Welsh, and conductor Stuart Stratford uses the cast well. However the potential for more complex interaction is lost in a first half that focusses too much on atmosphere – with some particularly striking lighting effects – at the expense of characterisation.
The pay-off comes in a strongly-paced second half. Welsh brings the complexities of modern attitudes to climate change into play; profit, science, compassion, the media and art all find themselves failing when the characters are called upon to make a sacrifice in a fittingly chilling climax.
MacRae and Welsh’s collaborations are always intriguing. Anthropocene, despite its glacial plot development, is a step forward in some ways, but there is still further to go before the full creative potential of their partnership is reached.