Over the last couple of years I have welcomed the Naxos reissue series
drawn from the compendious collection of recordings of the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies originally available on the long-defunct Collins Classics label. Quite apart from their documentary value, these reissues have been a model of decent presentation with all the relevant supporting material – notes, analyses, texts and translations where appropriate – either being supplied in the CD booklets or being made available online. Enthusiastically reviewing
the reissue of the composer’s one-act opera The Lighthouse
a few months back, I concluded by stating that “One assumes that in due course Naxos will reissue the remaining Maxwell Davies operas originally recorded by Collins – The Martyrdom of St Magnus, The Doctor of Myddfai
– although with the truly weird ... Resurrection
they need not feel a desperate sense of urgency.
” Well, we have already had St Magnus
, and now here in due chronological order is Resurrection
to keep it company, with only Myddfai
to come — presumably before the end of the year to complete the celebrations of the composer’s eightieth birthday.
really is weird, “even by Maxwell Davies’s sometimes very peculiar standards”. Working to his own libretto – all the composer’s other operas have texts by other hands, often of considerable literary merit in their own right – Maxwell Davies has constructed a partially autobiographical and partly purely fantastic scenario revolving around a curiously somnolent dummy-like ‘hero’. He is subjected to medical and sociological experiments by various authority figures such as church, state, family, surgeons and psychiatrists. This allows for plenty of satirical observations which are expressed through the composer’s familiar style of parody of various popular musical styles. Some of the parodies of television commercials which intersperse the action now inevitably have a definitely dated feel — although they are always apposite and often very funny — in the same manner as the contemporary references in Tippett operas such as The Knot Garden
and The Ice Break
. The overall result, apparently assembled over a period of some twenty years, is a real mishmash of different idioms jostling with each other for attention and frequently contrasted in a manner that militates against any sense of unified progression throughout the action. This is precisely what the composer intends, to illustrate the basically meaningless and irrational nature of human existence; but I have to say that, at any rate for this listener, the results are unconvincing. There is almost an abdication of responsibility here, the composer seeming to be as much at the mercy of his material as the ‘hero’ is of his environment. I find myself longing for the slightest indication of a sense of purpose; but that is not the message that Maxwell Davies intends to deliver.
Having said which, we are unlikely ever to hear a performance of the work that would be better than this, if indeed the opera is ever revived; it does not appear to have been staged since its original performances at Darmstadt in 1987. Indeed there don’t seem to have been any later concert presentations either apart from this recording made — amazingly enough, given the technical difficulties of the work, from a single performance — eight years later. Partly this may be due to the demands made upon a large cast of performers who take multiple roles, but one suspects that the sheer quirkiness of the inspiration behind the opera may also have played a part. There is not here the sense of emotional identification with the characters that one finds in similarly parodistic works such as Eight songs for a mad King
or Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot
, let alone Maxwell Davies’ other operas. All the performers and listeners can do is take the music at its face value, and do the best they can by it. Taken in small doses the score has many moments which can be enjoyed at that level.
When I originally heard the opera in the Collins Classics issue, I had the advantage of being able to access a vocal score of the work; the library from which I obtained this appears to have mislaid or lost its copy, but the libretto — available from the Naxos site by accessing a password provided with this issue — enables one to follow the action with ease, and the words are generally clear where they need to be. Oddly enough the amplified pop group are the least distinct, failing in places to penetrate Maxwell Davies’ often noisy orchestration. Della Jones, Martyn Hill, Neil Jenkins, Henry Herford and Jonathan Best are sometimes gritty in tone, but manage to create real if unsympathetic characters out of the caricatures they are asked to impersonate. Christopher Robson is less clear, but that is the nature of the counter-tenor voice. Best of all is Gerald Finley, who manages to get nearly all of his words across and – as one would expect – makes the most of the limited opportunities he is afforded for lyrical expression.
The notion of an opera with a silent protagonist is not new – as far back as the nineteenth century one encounters such works in the shape of Auber’s La muette de Portici
and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada
– but operas of this kind usually have an alternative leading role to provide a musical focus for the audience, which is lacking here. Nevertheless the composer clearly thoroughly enjoys himself on the podium, and gets an enthusiastic response from the members of the BBC Philharmonic. The recording is clear, forward and reveals all the detail that one could wish. As far as I remember, the vocal score revealed no significant errors in a work that must stretch performers to their limits. Although one might have reservations about the work itself, it is nonetheless valuable to have it available on record, especially so given that future performances will probably continue to be rare, not least because many of the Thatcherite targets of the satire are now so anachronistic.
The presentation by Naxos is all that one could wish. Bring on The doctor of Myddfai
Paul Corfield Godfrey