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Swashbuckling parody

RODERIC DUNNETT attends the Hungarian première
of Maxwell Davies's Expressionist opera 'Resurrection'


In 1962, Peter Maxwell Davies, fresh from his pioneering teaching work in Cirencester, crossed the Atlantic to study in Princeton with Earl Kim, Roger Sessions and Milton Babbitt. Freed from classroom demands, he was able to turn his mind to the major opera he had long had in mind : an ultra-Expressionist, post Wozzeck, in both dramaturgical and musical terms brilliantly structured large opera based on the life of the Tudor composer John Taverner. Like Hindemith's Matthias Grünewald or Pfitzner's Palestrina (both were arguably influences), Taverner for Davies became both an alter ego and a classic Everyman figure -- buffeted into betrayal of his own ideals by an unsympathetic world and a treacherously antagonistic political climate.

A scene from the Hungarian première of Maxwell Davies' opera 'Resurrection'. Photo © 2001 Andrea Felvégi

But another idea was hatching in Maxwell Davies's mind. Not yet thirty, he could see all around him the grimmer, ever-present dangers of booming, consumer-driven, unequal postwar society -- the uglier, downside legacy of the 1930s Roosevelt revival and 1950s boom -- tantalising those around him with longings for things they couldn't afford, shamelessly wooed by competitive well-heeled corporations for money they did have. A society of winners, but also of victims. At the same time, he could acutely remember the social buffeting a youngster -- even he, hailing from an upwardly mobile lower middle class family -- might experience growing up in a largely philistine postwar Britain, forever lectured and hectored, silenced and -- in effect -- brutalised by a working-class (in his case, northern) society which by and large viewed artists as cissies and young dissentients as a social disease.

A scene from the Hungarian première of Maxwell Davies' opera 'Resurrection'. Photo © 2001 Andrea Felvégi

From this was born Resurrection (completed 1987) -- Maxwell Davies's second full-length large opera, although its libretto was virtually complete by the time he returned from America in 1964. It is, in a sense, the black comic 'obverse' of Taverner, and Balazs Kovalik's production at the Thalia Theatre for the Budapest Öszi Festiväl (first staged -- to massive acclaim -- at the Budapest 'Island' pop festival in summer 2001) played tellingly on this idea of reversal, giving prominence almost unconsciously to Davies Leitmotifs ubiquitous elsewhere (wheel of fortune, Antichrist, shrieking deified countertenor, inherently diseased and oppressive officialdom). Indeed, the climax of the opera -- as the libretto conceived it, albeit not actually realised here (the weakest point in Kovalik's production) -- involves the 'resurrection' of the central character as, if not a 'terrorist', a classic Campus mass-killer.

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Copyright © 20 January 2002 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK







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