Archive for June 26th, 2008

This opera is based on the true story of the martyrdom of sixteen Carmelite nuns from Compiegne during the French Revolution.     It tells the story of Blanche from an aristocratic family who joins the order after being menaced by a mob in the street.    She is interviewed by the Old Prioress who becomes ill and dies, but before she does, has a vision of events to come and cries out against God.   The political situation deteriorates.   The chaplain of the convent is no longer allowed to officiate at Mass, and the convent is to be closed.   The nuns are given civilian clothes.    They take a vow of martyrdom, and are taken to Paris and condemned to death.  

The singing from all the principles from the Glasgow Opera School was all good, with Catherine Rogers as Blanche particularly outstanding, and the RSAMD orchestra in the pit conducted by Timoth Dean played generally well – and Poulenc’s music is so involving to listen to.

The production from Nicolette Molnar was ably directed, and use was made of a silent but very menacing mob of french peasants.     Alison Nalder’s lattice design fitted well.

Of course, as soon as this begins, the question is:   how will they do the final scene?    All the nuns sing ‘Salve Regina’ and as they each face the big blade, the chorus is reduced in number until only Constance and Blanche are left singing, and then they go too.   As each one dies, there is a loud clang from offstage percussion.     In previous productions, I have seen nuns climb a scaffold, and a guillotine wind up each time before crashing down.    In this production, the nuns faced us, walking into individual pools of bright white light before falling to the ground.    The amount of dead bodies on the stage at the end of this opera makes it hauntingly disturbing.

But it was well done, and no weak links.

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St Magnus Cathedral - KirkwallPeter Maxwell Davies wrote his short opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus for the first St Magnus Festival in Orkney in 1977.     It is a chamber piece, based on the book Magnus by George Mackay Brown.    It tells the story of the two Earls of Orkney in the 12th century Hakon and Magnus, and of the fated peace treaty on the isle of Egilsay.     Magnus is killed, but there are reports of miracles at his tomb, and in this story, Blind Mary has her sight restored.

St Magnus’ skull is buried  inside one of the pillars of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, and when Peter Maxwell Davies conducted the first performance there, he found that he was standing right beside the very pillar.

The opera had five hand-picked singers each performing a whole range of characters from Magnus, the Bishop, Hakon, rowers, Blind Mary and so on with onstage changes of costume.    Using a couple of long boxes and a few flags, the stage became two warring boats in the Menai Strait, or the Monastary on Birsay and St Magnus’ tomb.    The chamber orchestra were set to one side, but the percussionist arranged his whole extensive workshop right across the back of the stage.    It was a nice design by Monica Nisbet.Martyrdom of St Magnus

 The singing and playing were of extremely high standard.    The Hebrides Ensemble conducted by William Conway really got their teeth into the strange music, and would have been very watchable in their own right, but the intensity of the performances from the singers on stage actually made it very difficult to take your eyes off them, even for a second.    John McMunn gave a robust strong performance as Magnus, and tall Paul Whelan was authoritative in the bass parts of Hakon and the Bishop.    Leigh Melrose was a beguiling tempter, bearded Jeremy Carpenter looked like and sang the King of Norway, as well as the poor butcher Lifolf who is forced to dispatch Magnus.    Bookending the opera was Louise Mott singing Blind Mary, who also laid a heartfelt curse on the horsemen warriors for killing a farmer for not being able to provide bacon:   the farmer had no pigs.

Maxwell Davies writes fairly strange music, and in George Mackay Brown’s writings, he is perfectly matched.     In the book, Magnus, just before the killing, we are taken years forward to Nazi Germany, where the man chosen to be the butcher is Lifolf, the German recruited to do the cooking for the officers and prisoners in the Jewish camp.    The killing then becomes ‘any wronged prisoner’ who is put to death.      In the opera, the music suddenly changed, and the singers became reporters with torches and megaphones.    It was a strange surreal moment, and I was glad to get back into the distant past for the last scene.

And what a last scene it was.    The orchestra downed their instruments and four monks entered and sang strange plainchant accompanied by a single tuned bell.     Blind Mary received her miracle of sight, and dismissed the audience to carry the peace of Christ into the word, as the plainchant died away into the distance and the monks processed out with their candles leaving the single candle on Magnus’ tomb.   Wow – what a finish.

Benjamin Twist directed his forces with a light and effective touch.     He is becoming a favorite for chamber opera, as he was involved in the Five:15 project with Scottish Opera, as well as with the Hebrides Ensemble, directing the haunting Good Angel, Bad Angel.    

There were only three performances of this – one in Inverness, one at the Traverse in Edinburgh (it was packed out), and one back in St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney where it all began, and where it really must have sounded truly marvellous.

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