Magazine article The Spectator

Murder in the Cathedral

Magazine article The Spectator

Murder in the Cathedral

Article excerpt

King Canterbury Cathedral

There can't be many more tantalising prospects for an operatic composer than writing an opera about the murder of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170 and then conducting performances of it there. That is what Stephen Barlow has pulled off, the première and two subsequent performances taking place at the end of last week, the opera, or 'piece', beginning when the cathedral was still flooded by daylight, and ending with the audience largely in darkness, though much of the time there were lights shining from high up on pillars, which provided just enough illumination to encourage you to think you could follow the words, but not enough actually to, without damage to your eyesight.

For the familiar problem of cathedral acoustics was very much in evidence from the start. The whole length of the quire was employed, to impressive visual and, up to a point, dramatic effect, but it accentuated the difficulty of hearing many of the words, except when they were spoken or sung right at the front, just behind the orchestra and thus fairly close to the audience, or congregation. And this is a work which, if it has survival value, will depend on its text rather more than its music. It seems strange that as operatically and ecclesiastically seasoned a person as Stephen Barlow, who has conducted more than 100 operas, with companies all over the world, should have accepted this botched job from Philip Wells, and perhaps still stranger that Wells, highly experienced in both the study and the creation of dramas, should have managed to be so inept with such a succulent subject.

The first thing that gives cause for anxiety is the tone, not only of the words of the drama, but also of the breathless page that Wells writes by way of introducing a work which one wouldn't expect to feature children in a big way; but it does. 'When it came to writing about the future of the human spirit, as Becket would surely have us reflect upon [sic] if he spoke to us now, I felt compelled to ask the children for their own ideas, as they are blessed by being poor in spirit and fresh from God, ' he writes. Naturally, he was stunned by their responsiveness, creativity, etc. , and so the six children who appear fairly often produce lines which they themselves (not necessarily the one who speaks the line) have written. The results suggest that someone encouraged them to be portentous: 'A smile never lasts -- the earth quakes like a shiver', for instance, or 'We sang like asteroids: now the earth is just crying'. …

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