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Tom CUNNINGHAM (b. 1946) The Okavango Macbeth – chamber opera (2009)
Lady Macbeth – Beth Mackay (soprano),
Macbeth – Rónan Busfield (tenor),
Duncan – Andrew McTaggart (baritone),
Lady Macbeth’s friend – Lucinda Stuart-Grant (mezzo)
Primatologists – Nicholas Morris, Jamie Rock, Jessica Leary (baritone, baritone, soprano)
Mr McFall’s Chamber Orchestra/Michael Bawtree
Edinburgh Studio Opera Chorus
rec. 22-23 April 2011, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh DELPHIAN DCD34096 [49:28 + 33:40]
This is a heartening project, an opera created and performed in Edinburgh, combining the literary talents of a world famous Edinburgh author and the evident musical qualities of an Edinburgh composer who gets on with things quietly. McCall Smith (b. 1948), who spends a lot of time in Botswana, thought that the Okavango delta would be a good setting for an opera, so he re-imagined the Macbeth story to take place within a troop of baboons, all the while observed by a group of primatologists. The premiere took place in a converted garage in the Botswana bush (known as the No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House) and was then performed again at the Cambridge Music Festival and in Edinburgh. That led to this recording on Delphian, a Scottish label which does a lot to promote Scottish music and musicians.
Tom Cunningham’s score is eminently approachable and instantly engaging. It’s full of hummable melodies and inventive instrumentation for the chamber forces he uses. It is also carried forward by an infectious rhythm that quietly and unobtrusively suggests Africa. Some of the more intimate scenes, however, have just a tinge of Celtic music to them, suggesting their point of origin. Snobs might complain that it’s too much like a West End show, and maybe it’s a little repetitious at times, but it’s rich in tunes and contrasting dramatic situations in the best manner of musical theatre, and I enjoyed it very much.
The primatologists are initially quite bumbling but they are capably sung and their comments on the unfolding events in the Baboon troop are well observed. Beth Mackay sings Lady Macbeth with a rich sense of imperiousness, and Rónan Busfield, whose voice I have enjoyed in performances with the Scottish Conservatoire, sings Macbeth with clarity and a good dose of heroism. Andrew McTaggart makes a gravelly Duncan, but that fits his more authoritative role, and the singing of the chorus is strong, with all the solos taken very successfully.
McCall Smith’s libretto is also skilfully put together, drawing parallels between human society and that of the baboons without underlining them too severely, though some of the moral messages are a little heavily done. The recording quality is also excellent, perhaps favouring the voices a little too much, but still capturing all the parts well. In short, this is well worth a look.