Taverner | Opera review

City Halls, Glasgow

No work could have been more fitting to bring the 75th birthday celebrations of Peter Maxwell Davies in Glasgow to a close than his monumental opera Taverner. First performed in 1972 after a gestation of 16 years, the piece has been heard rarely since (a recording of a mid-1990s BBC performance has recently been released). Yet what this performance with the BBCSSO under Martyn Brabbins demonstrated beyond doubt is that the opera is a masterpiece. Betrayal, hatred, hysteria and the terrible things people do in the name of religion – all these Max trademarks are present, but in Taverner they combine to make something that is horrific, funny and strangely moving.

The opera is set in two acts, the first a kind of monumental tableau, the second a black inversion of the first, manically speeded up as Taverner the persecuted becomes the persecutor. The music is bold, occasionally cacophonous and never dull. The second-act chapel scene in which the tension is slowly cranked up before being dissipated in Taverner's own setting of the Benedictus, a kind of warped catharsis, is masterful.

With Brabbins in control at the helm, this performance was never less than convincing in its authority. The strong cast featured a number of particularly compelling performances: Daniel Norman as Taverner and David Wilson-Johnson as the wonderfully malevolent, twisted figure of Jester/Death. Even in a concert performance with just some theatrical trimmings – red lighting and a white crucifix projected above the stage – the drama was tangible. The stage ­ directions are pure gothic – monks burning holy objects, smoking chalices and a cameo appearance from the antichrist with the head of an ape. Surely some brave opera company is just waiting to stage a new production – failing that, the performance is being broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 28 November.


Rowena Smith

The GuardianTramp

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