When I was at primary school in Glasgow, we ‘studied’ Mary, Queen of Scots. As nine and ten years olds we were presented with stories about the murders of Lord Darnley at Kirk O’ Field near Edinburgh and David Rizzio in Holyrood Palace. Unsurprisingly, we were not told about the theological, sexual and political intrigues behind these sinister deeds. It was several years later that I discovered the magisterial biography of Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. I found it on a bookshelf of a Lake District guest house and dipped into it during wet afternoons.
As pupils we had been given the basic historical matter to provide a context for Mary’s life and times. She had lived in France, married the Dauphin, Francis, became Queen consort of France and finally returned to Scotland after being widowed. As a school with a strong Church of Scotland connection we heard of her contention with the over-enthusiastic Protestant John Knox and his railings against the ‘monstrous regiment of women.’ After Darnley’s murder, she married the Earl of Bothwell, who was surely the chief suspect in his death, possibly with Mary’s conniving. We thrilled at the doomed Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth, help Mary escape and to put her on the English throne. We learnt that Mary ended her days in Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, suffered ill treatment by Queen Elizabeth (probably untrue) and met her death by execution. It may have been an impressionistic history, with lots of bits left out. But this ‘overview’ is the essential background to Thea Musgrave magisterial opera, Mary Queen of Scots.
Thea Musgrave’s libretto is based on the play Moray by Amalia Elguera. The drama of the opera revolves around Mary’s relationships with her rival suitors. A contemporary review parodied this rapport better than I can: ‘Her convert Protestant half-brother, the Earl of Moray, the attractive but ambitious and weak Darnley, infatuated soldier Bothwell, the slimy…musician Rizzio, and a handful of scheming courtiers.’ The opera largely ignores the theological debate.
Mary, Queen of Scots was commissioned by Scottish Opera who gave the premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival on 6 September 1977.
The composer has created a good libretto, which largely mirrors historical facts and some legendary sentiment. The main action of the opera occurs between Mary’s arrival at Leith, Scotland in 1561 after the death of Francis II of France and her flight to England in 1568. The chief characters portrayed, apart from the Queen, are Lord Darnley, the Earl of Bothwell and James Stewart, Earl of Moray. The opera majors more on Moray than the Queen herself. A few historical liberties are taken: Moray was murdered two years later than suggested in the libretto, and Cardinal Beaton had died before 1561. The character called Lord Gordon was fictional.
Much of the important action is crammed into the final act: the murder of Lord Darnley, Mary’s seduction by the Earl of Bothwell, his flight, Mary’s abdication and Moray’s assassination. As for the Queen, she is portrayed in the opera as a heroic but flawed character. Musgrave depicts her as young and beautiful and subject to attention and political influence from her suitors. She displays determination and is sometimes rash. She can be unwise in matters of state and was over-ambitious and overly-persuaded of her own status. Her main motivation is that her son, James, would be king of Scotland and England. Where Mary is concerned, fact and fiction have become a little blurred.
What of the music? I was impressed. It is composed in an approachably modern style (for 1977). Critics have suggested that the vocal line, which is often declamatory, lacks lyrical attributes. Certainly, this style of singing is ubiquitous in this three-act opera. There is much violence with characters ‘haranguing’ and ‘shouting’ at each other. On the other hand, there are several tender and thoughtful moments. I would suggest that the listener pick out ‘Mary’s Lullaby’ in Act 3. (CD 2, track 5) to hear music that is lyrical and largely tonal. There are several moments when Scottish and European dance music is perceived amongst the more modernistic sounds, especially in the ‘ballroom scene’ at the end of Act I. The chorus contribute an important part in this opera. But it is the orchestration that lends most character to this work. It is imaginative, well-contrived and effectively supports the action on the stage.
The opera made a rapid crossing of the Atlantic, being given its American premiere only nine months after its Scottish premiere. The Virginia Opera company were conducted by the composer’s husband, Peter Mark. This double-CD is a live recording of Mary, Queen of Scots made on 2 April 1978 in Norfolk, Virginia. There are some noises off, such as coughing. This causes no problems as far as I can see. The singing is impressive, the diction is good with an occasional American twang apparent. And the applause adds to the sense of occasion.
The liner notes contain a major essay on the opera by the composer, which includes a detailed synopsis. There is a helpful biography of Thea Musgrave, the conductor Peter Mark and the notes ‘About Virginia Opera.’ Included in the box is a 68-page copy of the libretto. This includes very brief notes about each of the principal character. I found that this was worth studying in its own right. I note that the rear cover states that this American performance was given in 1979, not 1978. A typo, I fear.
I kept my eye on the libretto as I listened but did not follow it entirely. I just sat back and enjoyed the exploits (in my mind’s eye). It is invidious to pick out star performers, however I was impressed by Ashley Putnam as Mary. It is a difficult and demanding part, which she approached with the courage incipient in the character. Jake Gardner had created the role of James Stewart, Earl of Moray in the Scottish premiere: his performance here is convincing and dramatic. Poor Rizzio, played by bass-baritone Kenneth Bell, is sympathetic rather than unctuous.
When a splendid production like this is released, I am always a little wary of coming across as ungrateful. Nevertheless, I do wonder if this could be the start of a mini-revival of opera written by Scottish composers. It may be that Lyrita (or others) have Iain Hamilton’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1968) and his The Catiline Conspiracy (1973), Robin Orr’s Hermiston (1975), Thomas Wilson’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1975) and maybe even a complete performance of Jeanie Deans (1894) by Hamish MacCunn in their archives.
As for Mary, Queen of Scots, the listener must hope that it will be revived by Scottish Opera and given the full treatment. Then perhaps one day I may be able to review the DVD…
Thea Musgrave’s Mary Queen of Scots is an ideal 90th birthday tribute to the composer. It is a remarkable production that has stood the test of time. Despite the reliance on declamatory vocal lines (a feature of music at that time) it is typically a lyrical, approachable and satisfying performance. It deserves all success.
Thea MUSGRAVE (b. 1928) Mary, Queen of Scots (1977)
Ashley Putnam (soprano), Jake Gardner (baritone), Jon Garrison (tenor), Barry Busse (tenor) Kenneth Bell (bass-baritone), Francesco Sorianello (bass) Carlos Serrano (baritone), Robert Randolph (baritone), Pietro Pozzo (tenor), Gloria Capone (soprano), Nancy Boling (soprano), Anne Scholten (mezzo-soprano), Pamela Scott (mezzo-soprano), Virginia Opera Orchestra and Chorus/Peter Mark
Rec. 2 April 1979, Norfolk Virginia
LYRITA SRCD 2369
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.