22 JULY 1972, Page 22



Taverner in the town

Rodney Milnes

Peter Maxwell Davies's opera. Taverner ends quietly, with some of Taverner's own music, the music he is reputed to have given up in favour of monk-bashing, on four recorders dying away to nothing behind a very slow curtain. At the world premiere last week this was greeted by uncountable seconds of breathless silence and followed by a notably enthusiastic reception. This and the generally warm critical response since are richly deserved. A deeply thoughtful and often grippingly theatrical work, Taverner straightaway earns its place among the most satisfying operas introduced to London since the war. If this, is the young composer's Flying. Dutchman Or P■labucco then there are incalculable riches in store. There are nevertheless certain problems about the work and more particularly its production that it would be idle to ignore.

The theme, that of the artist and society, is one that has conc3rned many twentiethcentury ccmposers. Maxwell Davies approaches it via his idea of betrayal. The historical Taverner's involvement with the reformation/revolution led to his ceasing to compose and becoming one of Thomas Cromwell's most ruthless instruments in the dissolution of the monasteries, denying his genius and turning to something he presumably did less well (if the destructive can be qualitatively evaluated). This is Maxwell Davies's concept of the ultimate betrayal, and it airs a dilemma that must face many contemporary artists. There are also connected betrayals; the King who uses genuine unrest for personal expediency, the Cardinal who becomes Archbishop with a mere change of habit, the confessor who blandly changes sides, and the Jester (Death) who liberates Taverner only in order to destroy him. The only character who remains consistent, the Abbot, gets burned alive for his pains.

The composer's own libretto, in two acts eight scenes, is skilfully laid out. In the first scene Taverner is tried by the Abbot for heresy, and acquitted by the Cardinal: "he is but a poor musician." In Scene 2, he voices his religious doubts over the chanting of monks. In the third. King and Cardinal discuss the break with Rome with acid interiections from the Jester, and in the long last scene the Jester. now Death, engineers Taverner's conversion and concession in the face of unavailing opposition from his mistress (Muse) and father (authority) and with the aid of a grotesque anti Christian miracle play. Act 2, which mirrors the first, opens with the nightmare trial of the Abbot by Taverner, continues with King and transformed Archbishop cementing the revolution, shows Taverner, now arrogantly doubt-free, presiding over the military interruption of the monks' Mass, and ends with the burning of the Abbot and the ultimate destruction of Taverner himself. The action is in no way realistic, and all the characters are in a sense extensions of Taverner himself.

The composer has boldly written the 'text in semi-olde-worlde English. There is certainly no tushery, but a sentence like "and yet his wrath did often burn against those he loved most, and also the things, and the precepts, for that he could not have them enough, or was denied some part, by the will of others, or by his own insufficiency" is hard enough to sort out without cver its being sung, and there is more obscure usage than is strictly necessary. Good opera libretti are crystal clear.

The music is not particularly ' difficult ' to listen to, though it must be hellish tricky to sing and play. For the large cast I have nothing but grovelling admiration, especially for the magnetic Ragnar Ulfung and James Bowman. And if the orchestra was given as little rehearsal as Edward Downes revealed in a radio interview, then together they perform little short of a miracle.

As it is there are many passages

that are theatrically very powerful. The rushing strings and stabbing brass for the Wheel of Fortune are stunning. The intrusion of the soldiers upon the mass, drums beating, the Captain's sacrilege of the consecrated wine followed by the monks' ironic intonation of Taverner's own setting of the Benedictus with today's orchestra gradually overlaying it — all this adds up to one of the most gripping scenes in contemporary opera. The orchestral interludes, the choral writing and the agreeably Weill-ant treatment of sixteenth century dances are all masterly, and they are mostly in Act 2.

In the longer first act there are serious problems of pace. Most successful modern music theatre pieces, including Maxwell Davies's ewn, are comparatively short. A full-length opera must be cunningly constructed. The two scenes between King and Cardinal move dangerously slowly; they would have been helped if the off-stage bands that accompany them had been on stage, as specified in the score, but they were banished to the wings. The Jester's interjections in Act 1 do not vary the pace, as they surely should, and some of them call out do be spoken rather than sung. The fantasmagorical conversion scene, which shculd build steadily to the climax of the act, stops and starts musically, getting off to a slow start with the first exchange between Death and Taverner, and even when the orchestra is marked allegro, the vocal line still seems to be moderato. The long confrontation between Taverner and his Muse lacks musical urgency, and Death's climactic comment on the seven unclean spirits, although beautifully set, is a sagging lento motto from which the composer is hard put to it to regain impetus.

Ralph Koltai's giant revolving see-saw on a central pivot, symbolising as it does cross, sword and scales, is a fine basic idea, but it, too, brings problems in its wake. There is little interaction between characters if they are in mid-air at opposite sides of it and, to maintain contact between King and Cardinal, the Jester has to clamber about with his ladder like an ape. Both Koltai and Michael Geliot have disregarded many of the composer's detailed directions and substituted their own, which are nearly always less effectivt. Uncalled for joke monks skip about in the second court scene, robbing the subsequent act of persecution of half its impact—intentionally, I'm sure. Indeed, Geliot's rampant anti-Christianity, which would turn the gentlest agnostic into a Grand Inquisitor, leads him to some pretty passes, including Taverner making masturbatory gestures at the mention of Christ's cross. All of which is pointless, as the opera is no more about Christianity than it is about the Russian Revolution, and I think the universal application of the opera is compromised by these simplistic naughtinesses.