The Silver Tassie Opera in four acts to a libretto by Amanda Holden after the play by Sean OCasey
Harry Heegan Gerald Finley
Sylvester, Harrys father John Graham-Hall
Mrs Heegan, Harrys mother Anne Howells
Susie, the girl downstairs Sarah Connolly
Mrs Foran, an upstairs neighbour Vivian Tierney
Teddy, her husband David Kempster
Barney, Harrys best friend Leslie John Flanagan
Jessie, Harrys girlfriend Mary Hegarty
Dr Maxwell Mark Le Brocq
The Croucher Gwynne Howell
Staff Officer Bradley Daley
Corporal Jozef Koc
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera
Recorded live at the London Coliseum on 24/26/29 February & 3 March 2000
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: September 2002
CD No: ENO ALIVE 001 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes
Based on the Sean O’Casey play, The Silver Tassie tells the story of Harry, a football hero, who is injured in the trenches during the First World War and is left paralysed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. Amanda Holden’s libretto is excellent, with a taut approach to language making the words ideal for musical illustration.
Turnage’s musical vocabulary is eclectic and is not in any way forbidding as some contemporary composers can be. It is, however, strident in places, not least at the start of the opera where a short prelude presents various thematic ideas that will be heard and developed later on. These are pithy, as is the most memorable theme – Harry and Barney’s duet “Play the game” which has a nagging quality and is repeated later at key moments when football is mentioned.
The first act is set in the Heegans’ flat in Dublin where Harry’s parents are waiting for him to return from a football match prior to his departure for the army. Domestic squabbling from the neighbours and religious exhortations from Susie punctuate the expressions of pride that the Heegans feel for their son. In some ways I found this opening to be the least successful part of the opera. The characters are not really presented terribly sympathetically. We don’t feel engaged with them and therefore don’t care about them. Moreover, the orchestral accompaniment is not always apposite – Mrs Foran’s burning of a steak in a frying pan is illustrated as if a volcano were erupting. However, what becomes quite clear is the involvement of the cast in the characters they are portraying. The composer is lucky indeed to have such committed advocates. I would quibble, however, with John Graham-Hall as Sylvester – good as he is. Graham-Hall simply sounds too young to be convincing as Harry’s father.
We do not see very much of Harry who returns from the football match bearing the victory cup (the Tassie of the title) with his friends, since he departs soon after for the trenches. A tempestuous orchestral interlude (based on the “Play the game” theme) leads to Act Two set on the battlefront and opens with the Croucher – a kind of bible-reader – quoting and misquoting scripture in a world-worn and sometimes cynical manner. Gwynne Howell is superb in this role.
In the interview with the composer in the accompanying booklet, Turnage expresses his anxiety that this act should not sound like a “bad Britten War Requiem”. Ironically enough, this is the precise place where the music is at its most Britten-ish. The male chorus brings to mind the sailors in Billy Budd and the weary tread of the orchestra suggests exhaustion and resignation. The only characters who show a bit of life are the officers – shades of Berg’s Wozzeck here.
We see nothing of Harry or his comrades in this act and I wonder whether we might feel more engaged with his plight if we had done so. The writing for the male voices (and boys’ voices later that quote a folksong) is effective and evocative. The act ends with the men starting a football game – only to be cut off and summoned into battle.
Act Three finds us back in Dublin, this time in a hospital ward, where Harry is a patient and Susie a nurse. She seems to have abandoned her religious zeal displayed in the first act, for no apparent reason. Harry awaits an operation that will potentially cure his paralysis. It was here that I really started to feel empathy for the characters and this spilled over to the last act where a dance is going on at a football club, but Harry’s operation has failed, and he is bitter and demoralised. Teddy has gone blind and both try to console one another. This leads to a most moving final scene which begins with the most extended piece of lyrical writing in the opera – Harry’s aria “Dear God, this crippled form is still your child”, but Harry’s family and friends observe “we who have come through the fire unharmed must go on living”. The Silver Tassie – the symbol, surely, of Harry’s physical prowess – lies empty on the stage. During this act, there is an off-stage band playing ’mock’ dances and reels and serves as a kind of commentary on the proceedings rather in the manner of Act 3 of Britten’s Peter Grimes.
As I have indicated, the cast is a strong one, with no weak links (my one reservation aside) – not something that can be said of all opera performances or recordings of even the standard repertoire. Gerald Finley makes for a believable central figure and is ably supported by his colleagues. The orchestra, as recorded, sounds a little thin in places – especially the strings – but they play what is often hair-raisingly difficult music with confidence and conviction. Special mention should be made of the saxophone and bassoon players who have several exposed solos. Co-ordination and balance between stage and pit is fine most of the time but there are moments that would have been re-taken had the opera been recorded in the studio. The overall sound is clear with the words coming over strongly. It will be interesting to see how ENO Alive develops, but it has certainly got off to a strong start.