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North-east sees Magna Carta story

19 June 2015

by Roderic Dunnett

durham cathedral

SPARE a thought for King John, writes Roderic Dunnett. In a year in which Richard III has been restored to public acclaim, you would think John might merit a whisper of reassessment. Although John's rule was turmoil, mainly in dealings with the French, some modern historians argue that he was not all bad.

Nevertheless, he still looked quite a rotter in Durham this week, 800 years after the signing of Magna Carta at Runnymede. The cathedral library has the surviving exemplification of the 1216 version of Magna Carta, and the cathedral, besides sharing in a special display in the Palace Green Library, commissioned a community opera, The Great Charter, from the composer Timothy Craig Harrison and the librettist P. G. Hodgson.

Both hail from Middlesbrough, where Hodgson runs the Everyman Theatre and Harrison is Director of Music at St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral. Together, this talented and thoughtful pair have come up with a music-theatre experience that is both fun to perform and aptly conceived for joint adult and junior forces (Durham Cathedral Young Singers, plus numerous children from Teesside primary schools).

Hodgson imaginatively chose to give the tension surrounding the charter a wider perspective by weaving it with a futuristic abuse of power: a villainous, dictatorial "Protector" who deploys ominous brute power ("We have no need for social misfits. What we need is moral control"), suggesting extreme regimes today. Thus the presumption and overweening arrogance of the Plantagenet king are given an imaginary update.

What gave pleasure from the outset was Harrison's sensitive, apt, and clever score. One relished the (perhaps conscious) echoes of Britten's Church Parables (interrogatory horn, flute, and clarinet being just one example), or his use of the diminished fifth for moments of discomfort: "My Bunsen burner feels like it's on fire." One of Durham Cathedral's Young Singers sounded ready to perform Britten's Miles already. There were many inventive touches: double bass, pizzicato cello, percussion whip, wood block and tubular bells, flute, oboe, saxophone - all of which had something pertinent to say.

Perhaps lacking was a better use of these young people dramatically. Despite odd flurries of movement, what we saw came closer to a concert or at most a semi-staged performance. Yet the DCYS's younger (8-13) and older (14-16) singers, emotionally committed, excelled every time they opened their mouths.

Impressive, too, was the singing of the offstage Durham Singers, as in the brief setting of "Out of the depths" (Psalm 130), which Harrison subtly elaborates and develops; and the descanting of three incorporated congregational hymns (James R. Lowell's "Once to every man and nation", to the glorious Welsh tune Ebenezer (Ton-y Botel); Charles Wesley's "Forth in Thy name, O Lord, I go" set to Gibbons's immortal, slow-unfolding tune, with trumpet then female-voices descant; and Luther's "Nun danket".

What a mixture of good things there were in this piece. Yet here, arguably, came a drawback. Switching from one story and era to another has worked or given problems in many pieces, indeed modern operas, before. But to embrace a plot and subplot, liberally scatter turbae-like crowd exchanges, explore "brainwashed, desensitised child drones" and ambivalent Teachers ("If we are sheep, what are the kids?"), and assimilate some (welcome) comedy from Deryck Webb's malicious, ironic King/Potentate ran the danger of slipping into overripe medley. One patent dramatic error was to place Webb's flaunting monarch behind the orchestra. Even well-enunciated words and wit got lost. A pity.

At key points (the reading of the charter, the final capitulation of King and despot), a hymn is sung. How far this is successful rather than a diminution of dramatic intensity is a moot point. Often used, such devices tend to detract.

As a worthy preface, the accomplished Durham Singers sang two works associated with kingship. Yet it was not Elgar's "Great is the Lord" (Psalm 48) - which sounded a bit staid and stolid (compared with his slightly later "Give unto the Lord') - that carried the day, but Philip Moore's setting of Andrew Motion's "The King and Robin", composed for the millennial celebration (2005) of King Edward the Confessor.

Some splendid soprano singing, and the lithe build-up, unusual canons, and jazzy rhythms near the end were fresh and original. It is a piece infused with life and energy, and Julian Wright drew from his singers a wonderful reading. "The robin weaves his notes and lets them fall Distinctly as a jewelled coronal." Exquisite words, exquisite interpretation: it took flight.


The Great Charter will at St Mary's RC Cathedral, Middlesbrough, tomorrow at 7 p.m. Box office: phone 03000 266600.


"Magna Carta and the Changing Face of Revolt" is in Palace Green Library, Palace Green, Durham, until 31 August. Phone 0191 334 2932. www.dur.ac.uk/palace.green 

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