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ClassicsOnline Home » MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Resurrection [Opera] (D. Jones, C. Robson, M. Hill, N. Jenkins, BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies)
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies began work on his parodic opera Resurrection whilst studying at Princeton in the early 1960s but it wasn’t until the 1980s that he resumed composition. It was finally staged in 1987. Its violent diversity—though any stylistic jolts are deliberate—takes aim at a series of targets (state, church, and media) and is expressed in a dazzling but masque-like succession of scenes, and through the blackly comic pastiche of hymn tunes, marching bands, saccharine waltzes, and banal TV advertisements.
Peter Maxwell Davies (b. 1934)
Resurrection, Op. 129 (1987)
Opera in one act with prologue
Libretto by the composer
© 1986 Chester Music Ltd.
The Hero – A larger-than-life-sized effigy or dummy, still and silent throughout
Elder Sister, Phoebus Apollo, Antichrist – Della Jones, Mezzo-soprano
Mam, Zeus or Hera – Christopher Robson, Countertenor
Headmaster, Surgeon 1, White Abbot, Bishop – Martyn Hill, Tenor
Vicar, Pluto, Hot Gospeller – Neil Jenkins, Tenor
Dad, Surgeon 2, The Rev’d Minister, Policeman – Henry Herford, Baritone
Younger brother, Surgeon 3, Sir Croesus Wright, Judge – Gerald Finley, Baritone
Doctor, Surgeon 4, Comrade Serbsky, Trade Union Leader – Jonathan Best, Bass
Rock band – Blaze
Rock band’s vocalist / Cat – Mary Carewe
Electronic Vocal Quartet
Lesley Jane Rogers, Soprano • Deborah Miles-Johnson, Alto
John Bowley, Tenor • Mark Rowlinson, Bass
BBC Philharmonic • Sir Peter Maxwell Davies
From the perspective of our own age, it is easy to underplay the significance of the intervening years between, say, Beethoven’s first thoughts on Fidelio and his second, final revision of the opera nearly a decade later, or even the 24-year gap between the two versions of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. Yet mention the fact that Resurrection was conceived during the early 1960s, when Maxwell Davies was studying at Princeton University, only to reach the stage in 1987, and one’s vivid perception of those very different times leads to expectations of a strange hybrid which, after a very conscious fashion, the opera undoubtedly is. Resurrection certainly revels in the violent diversity of its musical and verbal styles; for once, the parallel with Tippett’s exuberant melting pot is valid, since Maxwell Davies confesses he was influenced by The Midsummer Marriage at the start. Even so, the opera’s steady genesis over the years is not something the composer feels inclined to examine in terms of ‘what came when’.
The only stylistic jolts are deliberate ones. In fact, Max’s most remarkable success surely lies in structurally holding it all together as he progressively raises the individual plight of the ‘Hero’—a still, silent dummy submitted to every kind of bludgeoning conformity (from the state, the church and the media) that late twentieth-century society can devise—onto the level of Jung’s ‘collective unconsciousness’ (another connection, of course, with Tippett). If that sounds rather grand in principle, all it means in practice is homing in on what are (by this opera’s standards, at any rate) specifics in the Prologue by contrasting three clearly defined groups: the telly-watching family complete with visitors, the rock group and the advertising vocal quartet, in order to ease the audience into the anything-goes eclecticism in the ‘act’ proper. It would still seem like a mad masque, and the only way to enjoy it is to surrender and, given the right circumstances, be dazzled—but there is always carefully structured method in it.
The idea for the ‘act’ came first. Max remembers writing to Donald Mitchell with the theme of an elaborate operation to transform a patient on an operating table backfiring; the result is the final manifestation of the Antichrist. This apocalyptic vision had its roots in his opera Taverner, which took the then current view of the Tudor composer as a ‘party line’ persecutor of Catholics following his conversion to the Protestant faith, and especially in the fourth scene of Taverner’s first act in which the Jester as death conjures up the Antichrist as an ape in Pope’s trappings. The operation scenario was inspired by Arthur Koestler’s Act of Creation, which contains a description of a patient undergoing brain surgery; the patient conveys a sense of pain and discomfort to the surgeon through gibberish and nonsense rhymes.
Resurrection, too, exploits the phenomenon of how basic and banally expressed ideas can end up carrying a burden beyond what they actually say, welded here to the apocalyptic scenario by constant reference (notably within the increasingly sinister TV commercials) to symbols and images from the Revelation of St John as Dürer perceived them in his series of 15 woodcuts (1498). In his preface to the printed libretto, Maxwell Davies recommends the designer to study these woodcuts.
Although it is no more ‘realistic’ than the action to follow, the Prologue lets us get to grips with the basic plight of the ‘Hero’, and the atmosphere in which his strange adventure is to take place, before Maxwell Davies flies off at imaginative tangents to the ‘operating theatre masque’ of the main action. As well as the set pieces approximating to the ritornellos of a rondo movement (to be exploited at more daring length in the act), there is a sense of development. It is to be felt chiefly in the music of the rock group, which becomes increasingly wilder as it accompanies the progress of the ‘prime mover’, the Cat, and its ‘alchemical songs’ en route to its apocalyptic manifestation as a Dragon. The composer gives the group only an outline in the full score, to be fleshed out by the band’s arranger according to taste.
First, though, we meet the inert dummy hero and his family. The composer grants that he was probably influenced, albeit unconsciously, by Brecht’s and Weill’s inverted morality tale The Seven Deadly Sins—in which the grasping family’s mum is impersonated by a bass in drag (here ‘she’ is a countertenor)—but in Resurrection the family members give individual lectures, accompanied by different instrumental ensembles (low woodwind, for example, complement the father’s homilies). Weill’s family quartet is paralleled instead in the saccharine waltzes and insinuating liveliness, peppered with prophetic apocalyptic stardust on celesta and glockenspiel, of the electronic vocal quartet. Their TV advertisements here, cleverly inserted between the verses of the Cat and the pillar-of-society representatives who visit the family, come thick and fast; the verbal references to Dürer’s woodcuts, though many, are not as yet highlighted by the musical setting of the text.
The first climax is initiated by the ‘visitors’ joining the family in their conformist chorale, supported (or undermined) by the full orchestra with ceremonious crotales; as the dummy’s head explodes into brightly coloured streamers, the rock group enters with a huge chord relayed by electronic tape in two and finally retreats after a terrific conflict with the orchestra. Brass and strings sustain the tension; but the only answer, as the curtain rises on the act, is the next TV commercial proposing apocalyptically larded cures for the ‘four winds of indigestion’.
A series of masquerading rituals is now initiated by the four surgeons, who begin their ‘moral’ dissection of the Hero with (in the words of the preface) a look at ‘his intellectual life/political history (brain)’. After a high-kicking foxtrot with prominent alto saxophone, they don their first guises. Each rattles off his creed at a similarly alarming pace, but there is some distinction in the more prominent supporting instrumentalists; strumming banjo and trumpet for the Abbot, lower strings and harmonium for the Protestant, alto flute and strings vibrato, con passione for the Businessman, side drum and brass for the gun-toting Russian. Then, after a glittering, fantasy-holiday advertisement, fanfares inaugurate two mythological tableaux—the first, Pluto’s quick victory over vaunting Phoebus Apollo, the second, the approach of a Thatcher-like Hera (or a Callaghan-like Zeus—or, as one supposes, whatever happens to be most topical at the time of the performance). His/her speech is delivered offstage by the countertenor and treated electronically and orchestrally ‘to sound like a crackly Edwardian ballad recording’ which duly winds down.
Lurid orchestral glissandos illustrate one of the oddest TV ads yet, paving the way for the surgeons’ next probing—an investigation of the patient’s ‘emotional/ religious history (heart)’. The ritornello here is obvious; an onstage marching-band tune, a parody of the Victorian church composer Stainer in a mood of the grossest confidence. Tension is sustained by the increasingly expressive, impassioned orchestral accompaniments to the Hot Gospeller’s recitatives; cue for an overwhelming mêlée of G major ‘crusading’ against something altogether more threatening in the orchestra. But the second climax of the opera breaks off abruptly and the vocal quartet’s soprano turns diva in a gaudy D flat major celebration of the patient’s new paste-diamond heart.
The surgeons now move, sans logic, on to an examination of the patient’s ‘sexual proclivities (genitals)’. A puppet-show of childhood sexuality, with nightmarish electronics and celestial toy-box percussion, yields to a grotesquely scored punishment-as-bondage advertisement. The mood then seems to lighten to a series of pastiches connected by variously scored fanfares; a pungently scored ‘jazz dream sequence’ for the hero’s sexual fantasy, followed by a tap dance in which one boy seems to be telling another ‘I could be happy with you’—shades of Max’s Boyfriend arrangements—if only the law allowed it. Further establishment comments, this time on so-called sexual perversity, are underpinned by the most explicit parodies yet, including a chorale prelude mocked by brass during the Bishop’s commentary and a maestoso ‘Great British’ anthem with Straussian twists for the Judge. Straightforward silent-film chase music underpins the sexual hypocrisy of those in authority, and the composer even manages to squeeze in a dash of his cod-Scottishness and his clever impersonation of the bagpipes in TV Commercial No. 22. So the sudden violence of the next surgery comes as a surprise. The last advertisement, too, is suddenly, terribly ironic: the alto flute sustains a bleak lament for inner-city decay while the vocal quartet extol ‘investment in real estate’. A third shattering climax ushers in the rock group—significantly silent throughout the act until now—for the Song of the New Resurrection (CD 2, 3). In the course of the three verses, the band and its vocalist gradually compels the orchestra to join its victory song; the transformed patient, machine-gun member rampant, disappears to make way for the resurrected Antichrist and the opera ends in a blaze of unnatural light.
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MAXWELL DAVIES, P.: Resurrection [Opera] (D. Jones...