Resurrection

resurrectionThis review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.

The 1994 recording of Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera Resurrection, previously released on Collins has now been re-released on the Naxos label. It’s a hugely ambitious and somewhat confusing work; even harder to get to grips with on CD than it might be with visuals. It’s an anarchic parody of establishment figures and attitudes executed via a pastiche of multiple musical styles.

The “plot” revolves around the “Hero” who is a dummy who neither sings nor speaks; problematic on CD! In the Prologue the “Hero” is harangued by various characters; his parents and siblings, the vicar, the headmaster and the doctor, who exhort him to be a conscientious wage slave, religiously observant and sexually continent. The exhortations are punctuated by increasingly apocalyptic numbers sung by the Cat, a female rock singer, accompanied by rock band. The Prologue concludes with a chorale to Conformity.

The opera proper continues with a cacophonic introduction in which the orchestra, rock band and electronic vocal quartet fight for supremacy. This is followed by a weird TV ad for an apocalyptic cure for “The Four Winds of Flatulence” followed by the introduction of the four surgeons, foxtrotting to a jazz band, who will attempt, severally, to cure the Hero’s non-conformities of the brain, heart and genitals. These episodes are punctuated by various stylistic parodies of “respectable” figures. These include a splendidly meaningless speech by a politician, a hot gospeller accompanied by an accomplished pastiche of Stainer and an advert for vivisection accompanied by a rather good facsimile of the bagpipes. The rock band is held back for the raucous finale where the dummy machine guns cast and audience with his penis before making way for the Second Coming of the Antichrist.

In some ways pride of place among the performances must go the rock group Blaze with vocalist Mary Carewe. The composer provides only an outline of their music and their arrangement/interpretation, vaguely punkish, fits the mood beautifully. Among the more conventional singers, who all sing multiple roles, I particularly liked the countertenor, Christopher Robson, who has some of the weirdest vocal lines and manages them well. The rest of the cast; Della Jones, Martyn Hill, Neil Jenkins, Henry Herford, Jonathan Best and a young Gerry Finley all manage to hit the right tone for the various, mostly pompous and unsympathetic characters they inhabit. The electronic quartet of Lesley Jane Rogers, Deborah Miles-Johnson, John Bowley and Mark Rowlinson are also engagingly weird in their, mostly, apocalyptic TV ad spots.  The composer conducts the BBC Philharmonic and coaxes sounds from them that one, suspects, they are rarely called on to produce. The recording is quite clean and clear which I would judge essential for a work like this.

Weird, wild but very accomplished, Resurrection is very much a period piece. It’s a punk style reaction to Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and the inability of working class and labour movement to articulate other than a nostalgic response to it. Despite the composer’s current eminence I don’t see this being performed at the Palace or the Abbey any time soon.

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