Prom 8 – Antigone Alone

Mendelssohn
Antigone – Incidental music to the tragedy of Sophocles

Chorus leader / Messenger / Servant – David Calder
Antigone – Zoë Waites
Ismene – Kate Duchêne
Creon – Brian Protheroe
Haemon – David Tennant
Tiresias – John Carlisle

Stephan Loges (baritone)
Roderick Williams (baritone)

Eugenia Arsenis – director

BBC Singers (men’s voices)
City of London Sinfonia
Richard Hickox


Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 23 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

One of the worst-attended Proms I have ever been to, this intriguing and certainly worthwhile rediscovery of a little known Mendelssohn work – which tied in to the overriding Proms theme of the year, Greek mythology – was given more than a semi-staged ’production’ on the platform of the Royal Albert Hall, with a clutch of very fine actors indeed, headed by Zoë Waites in the title role, and Brian Protheroe as Creon. The fact that John Carlisle played the small (but weighty) role of Tiresias is indicative of the strength of the casting.

Translator and director Eugenia Arsenis made good use of the forestage, exits and entrances, although the set – a bower to the left, a single tree to the right – was not necessary.The City of London Sinfonia and Richard Hickox were behind, virtually in darkness, with the men of the BBC Singers arrayed behind them on the hall’s back risers.To either side of the chorus were baritones, dressed in monk’s cowls, Stephen Loges and Roderick Williams.

It is, without doubt, a curious work – adapted and staged at the behest of King Frederick-William IV of Prussia in 1841 – but one in which Mendelssohn not only took pains to be faithful to Sophocles but also, in just setting the all-important ruminative choruses, harked back to both Mozart and Bach (of whose music, of course, Mendelssohn was the most significant champion in the nineteenth-century’s Bach ’rediscovery’). The seven darkly-hued choruses (men only) are uttered in quasi-religious tones, and sung one after another; shorn of the play, they would probably sound too similar.Richard Hickox, never the master of dramatic architecture, was well-suited to the respectful music.

In the context of a production they fulfil the Greek drama convention of having an outside voice being able to comment on the action and, as with all Greek tragedy, audiences need to be able to step back and find some respite.

Antigone – the daughter of blind Oedipus (who married his mother having killed his father – the blinding being self-inflicted as punishment) – battles with Creon, her uncle and father of her betrothed, Haemon, because – as King after Oedipus – he will not give one of Antigone’s brothers proper burial rights.This is because Polynices (the brother in question) had risen up against Thebes in civil war.As ever with Greek mythology we are dealing with a family at war with itself, and ultimately Creon, through his stubbornness, loses not only his niece, but his son and wife as well.Not as popularly known as the woes of the house of Atreus (Elektra gets a Proms outing in Prom 15, 29 July), it is a shame that the house of Oedipus got such a small house at this late-night concert.

Wouldn’t it have been better to build Antigone into a series of events on one day, illustrating the various main myth strands, so that audiences could, literally make a day of it?Oedipus Rex in a programme with Antigone in the morning, Iphigénia en Aulide in the afternoon and Elektra in the evening, perhaps.If you could fit a fourth one in – why not La Belle Helene or Orphée aux Enfers, which would at least replicate the way the Greeks themselves attended their drama – three tragedies followed by a comedy.

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