17 SEPTEMBER 1977, Page 22


Good Queen and bad

Rodney Milnes

Each of the three national opera companies launched its first new production of the season last week, with a score of one bull's-eye, one outer, and one where someone omitted to put a bullet up the spout. The bull's-eye is Scottish Opera's Mary, Queen of Scots, commissioned from Thea Musgrave and premiered at the Edinburgh Festival. Against all known odds it has a better chance of becoming established in the repertory than any new work seen here in the last ten years.

The whole undertaking must have been a minefield, through which Musgrave (I intend no discourtesy in dropping the prefix, as one automatically does with Britten, Tippett or indeed Donizetti) has tiptoed with amazing delicacy. First, her own libretto deals only with Mary's seven years in Scotland (thus side-stepping the it'sbeen-done-before objection) and uses a syntax that avoids both excessive tushery and jarring colloquialism. It is structured with the skill of a Scribe, which I mean as a compliment; there are moments in the expository first act when the momentum falters, but that is true of most operas on the grand scale. More important, each well proportioned act moves to a natural climax. The first is a ball at Holyrood House that rivals Gloriana for theatrical punch, and the second progresses via the murder of Rizzio (can't fail) to a grand ensemble in which Mary appeals to the People over the heads of the assorted shits who are trying to manipulate her and succeeds triumphantly — corny in print, stunning in the theatre. The third, short act goes at the headlong pace of middle Verdi and ends with a bang long before you expect it. Of how many twentieth-century operas can you say that?

Musgrave's musical language, vaguely post-Britten, 'eschews the angular declamation that has been so depressing a characteristic of contemporary opera. Her writing for voice is as satisfying to listen to as it must be to sing. The element of songand-dance pastiche is both apt and firmly controlled. You may not come out of the theatre whistling the tunes, but the vivid colour of her instrumentation for small (forty-four) orchestra rings in your ears instead. Her pungent use of woodwind, which covered the voices so often in the flawed Voice of Ariadne, is here more skilfully contrived. The chorus is employed on the grand scale, and I'm sorry, I cannot conceal it any longer, this is a twentiethcentury grand opera, and it works.

The subject matter must have accounted for many of the mines in the field. Audiences, especially in Scotland, will complain that their favourite character has been left out. Well, there is no John Knox, which is a relief, and no Elizabeth, though her name is mentioned at the ball with positively H.M. Bateman-esque results. Nevertheless, all the characters save two are historical, and I hope I shall not render myself liable to prosecution under the Race Relations or Equal Opportunities Acts by noting that the only even half-way sympathetic Scottish males on view are the pair that Musgrave has been forced to invent.

Yet there is nothing modishly feminist in her treatment of Mary, who arrives in Scotland aged only eighteen and has to cope with a rapacious crew out to exploit her sex and her youth. Prominent among them is her half-brother James Stewart, who straightway joins the gallery of succulent operatic villains. Their love for each other (in the music, please note, not in the text — that is what opera is for) does not survive the politicking; when on his side it turns to hate it is all the more disturbing. Darnley (a riveting portrayal by a powdered and rouged David Hillman) gets what he deserves, off-stage. Mary is able to play these two off and bear the child she needs to assure the succession. What, in her isolation, she is unable to resist is the animal attraction of someone referred to (authentically I'm sure) as the Airl of Bovell. In act three they are surprised in medias res by the unspeakable James, and thence to the hostility of the volatile mob, abdication, and the hurly-burly of the denouement. Mary's one human act is her undoing.

The public and private faces of those who wield power was of burning concern to those who wrote opera in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The fact that power has passed from kings and queens to those the good Mr Matthews calls robber barons makes it no less a matter of import — hence colleague Waugh's abiding interest in Mrs Murray's knickers.

The production is by Colin Graham, who is unbeatable at this epic game. The shock final curtain, with Mary stretching her hands umbilically through the grille, symbolisof exile, towards her child as it is seized by one of James's less agreeable minions is a powerful visual image. The Holyrood Ball (ideal choreography by Peter Darrell), the marshalling of the mob, I mean People, the easy adaptation of Robin Don's set, the atmosphere of intrigue erupting regularly into mindless violence — the dramatic mood is faultlessly controlled.

The title-role was written for Catherine Wilson. She is one of those few artists who make the act of singing seem utterly natural, and she is a telling and economic actress capable of conveying the many facets of the character, from coquetry to despair, with minimum fuss. She plays the aftermath of the assassination of her cicisbeo Rizzi° (Stafford Dean, very subtile) with her back to the audience — but what an expressive back: just by the way she holds her body you see the horror and the muscles stiffening in resolve never to trust anyone again. There are fine performances from the American Baritone Jake Gardner (a wonderfully creepy James), from Gregory Dempsey, still one of the best dancers on the operatic stage, as Bothwell, and from William McCue as the unhistorical Gordon, a sort of representative of national conscience not, alas, to be found there at the time. The luscious costumes are by Alex Reid, and Musgrave herself conducts the Scottish Chamber Orchestra with calm authority. This exciting and original opera opens in Glasgow on 6 October, and indeed vaut le voyage.

The English National Opera's new Boheme is so nearly marvellous that its few idiocies are all the more maddening. The producer, Jean-Claude Auvray, gets superb performances from Valerie Masterson and David Rendall. Maybe she hides Mimi's misery behind too determinedly cheerful an exterior in the earlier acts, but her later decline, grey-faced and wild-haired, would make even a critic weep. Mr Rendall's Rudolph is a nice but essentially weak boy who can't cope with a crisis; vocally and dramatically he is little short of sensational.

M Auvray's penchant for ritzy lighting effects that kill stone dead the very points he is trying to emphasise, his tendency to pictorialise the music (fatally at the end of the third act), and a weakness for irrelevant production numbers (Musetta's Waltz is a horror) can all be sorted out by a competent staff producer later on, So, I hope, can such details as everyone complaining about the cold while the door is left open for all Act One, and the old translation, which in the context of a new production is insufferable the more so when bits of it are updated: vipera, rospo etc. become 'bitch, bastard, bloody whore'. Hubert Monloup's sets are • realistic and evocative. I am not sure about the Bohemians' quarters being at ground level; it wouldn't matter so much if the cast were not resolutely singing about attics and staircases.

Christian du Plessis (Marcel) has taken giant strides forward as an actor while remaining a good singer. Lorna Haywood is an ideally voluptuous Musette (Murger's names are used), the mature woman sorting out all these silly young men. The excellent John Tomlinson was slightly below par as Colline, but then he had to cope with an unbearably twee staging of his coat aria. Charles Mackerras is the sound conductor. Once M Auvray's excesses have been eliminated, this could settle down into a good and lasting Boheme, which is presumably what the company wanted. They might have found it nearer home.

The Welsh National Opera's new Queen of Spades was a fiasco, and not just because of those things that can (and did) go wrong on a first night. Wilfred Werz's ugly sets had as little to do with Tchaikovsky's opera as they had with the company's present resources, and they were amateurishly built. David William, the producer, proved unable to cope with either a chorus or the public scenes, and betrayed only the sketchiest awareness of what the opera was about. The casting was not entirely adequate. David Lloyd-Jones and the Welsh Philharmonia were out of sorts. The lighting, credited (unbelievably) to John B. Read, looked as if it was being made up as the evening progressed. The casting of Svetlana Beriosova in a role that doesn't even exist was a shameless, not to say humiliating publicity stunt. Mr Lloyd-Jones's new translation was sadly prosaic, and — I could go on and on. The Swiss soprano Evelyn Brunner had a jolly good shot at Lisa in painstaking English, Maureen Guy at least gave a performance as the Countess, and Angela Hardcastle's choreography was good. Allen Cathcart's amiably relaxed Hermann was not. The crucially important Pastorale was omitted, In which case why bother to do the opera at all? R.I.P.