A long-standing personal affection for British Opera has encompassed over the years quite a mix of stylistic idioms; in no particular order - Delius, Sawer, Ades, Britten, Birtwhistle, Bennett, and Phylis Tate among others. I regret to say though that I hadn’t encountered any opera by Thea Musgrave, despite her having penned some dozen or so examples. My loss….....and one, after listening to these discs, that I’ll certainly be trying to remedy.
Although it has a somewhat slow start, largely due to the natural desire to establish character, motive and scene, I found that the second and third acts pick up a dramatic narrative and then never to seem to let it go. It just drives through the music ……… right through to Mary’s desolate realization that power….....and her child…have slipped through her hands, due in no small part to her own unwise decisions.
The cast features only 2 names familiar to me; Ashley Putnam as Mary – a fine singer who appeared at Covent Garden in the 1980’s and had a short exposure on record (as Mimi I recall with Covent Garden forces under Sir Colin Davis on Philips), and Jon Garrison. Yet familiar names or not all the singers seem intensely committed to Musgrave’s work, and bring it vividly to life.
The production comes from America where the composer, born in Scotland, is now resident. It is directed by her husband Peter Mark, and was recorded live at a theatre in Norfolk, Virginia in April 1978. The microphones are seeming placed somewhere in the pit or on the apron of the stage, which means there isn’t much depth to the sound; for example, the entry of Mary into Edinburgh (Leith), where she is met by her courtiers, loses something in perspectives. Subsequent ballroom scenes are similarly afflicted. However, once the ear adjusts I didn’t find this troublesome. Also, I have to report that the sound does get congested and frays at the edges when singing and orchestral forces are at full cry, but again I didn’t find this a desperate problem.
No frankly as I continued to listen I kept feeling……...why has this work never been heard at the Coliseum? I appreciate with its financial position ENO must put ‘bums on seats’ but this is an opera which could potentially triumph there.
Thea Musgrave celebrated her ninetieth birthday on 27th May 2018. Lyrita have released a recording of one of her operas, written in 1977 "Mary Queen of Scots". This is a live recording made in 1978 with Virginia Opera, conducted by Peter Mark. Thea Musgrave wrote the libretto, based on a play by Amalia Elguera, as well as the music. There is plenty of live applause between various scenes which certainly adds atmosphere. The sound as you would expect from this era is not perfect. It is stereo AAD. Your ear adjusts to this after a while and did not detract from my enjoyment. The emphasis of the story is on Mary's relationship with various historical characters, although not Elizabeth I. The opera covers the period of Mary returning to Scotland in 1561 through to her leaving for England in 1568. A historical timeline is included as well as a full libretto in English. There is a good level of historical accuracy.