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
"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