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MUSGRAVE: Mary, Queen of Scots

CD Button Putnam; Busse, Garrison, Gardner, Serrano, Bell, Sorianello. Virginia Opera, Mark. Texts. Lyrita SRCD 2369 (2)

Recordings Mary Queen Cover 1218
Critics Choice Button 1015

IN HONOR OF Scottish–American composer Thea Musgrave’s ninetieth birthday, Lyrita has rereleased the U.S. premiere of her opera Mary, Queen of Scots, recorded live at Virginia Opera in 1978. Musgrave, who also wrote the libretto, focuses on the pivotal events surrounding Mary’s return to the Scottish throne after being widowed as Queen of France. A complicated power struggle ensues between Catholic Mary and her Protestant, illegitimate half-brother, James, with the inherent religious conflict casting a broader shadow over the wrangling of the once-affectionate siblings turned fierce antagonists. Musgrave’s Mary is a strong, independent woman who nevertheless seeks love and companionship as well as political support from the fawning men who surround her. Unfortunately, none of them can be trusted. Mary’s first scheming husband, Lord Darnley, is dispatched by her would-be second, the Earl of Bothwell, but not before Darnley destroys her only true friend at court, David Riccio. Musgrave skillfully telescopes the final sequence of historical maneuvers as James is killed, Mary flees to England and Mary’s infant son is named King James VI of Scotland, who later unites the kingdoms as James I.

With its evocative, atmospheric orchestrations, Musgrave’s thrilling score is rooted in the rough-hewn, elemental Scotland of Elizabethan times. The opera begins with shimmering strings rising like highland mist, soon pierced by plaintive double reeds. Scenes dovetail neatly. The ensemble that welcomes Mary home is a choral tintinnabulation that morphs into overlapping market calls, which coalesce on the word “peace.” The pavane mourning the death of the elderly, trustworthy Lord Beaton segues into a series of traditional Scottish dance tunes with prominent flute, percussion and finger cymbals. During the dance, Mary and Darnley test the romantic waters, even as the political stakes build around them with ominous witchery in the strings. When James returns to the court to take on his sister, he sounds like a monster rising from the sea, as he sings, “Cursed fate to be son of a King and yet be not King.”

The orchestral forces do the dramatic heavy lifting, with the voices riding the wave in a manner more declamatory than lyrical. Ashley Putnam is bright and authoritative in the rangy title role. When Mary meets Darnley, Putnam’s winsome soprano grows warmer even as she exerts her authority over him. Her aria, “Oh James, so he goes,” throbs with emotion, but it’s here that Putnam synthesizes Mary’s two personae. She emerges as both a woman and a ruler, realizing she must stand alone as the aria moves from swirling, all-instrumental cacophony accompanying James’s furious exit to regal, proclaiming brass. 

Jake Gardner wields his penetrating baritone forcefully as the hotheaded James, while the blooming tenor of Jon Garrison, as Darnley, combines innocence and debauchery. Tenor Barry Busse provides heroic contrast as Bothwell, Kenneth Bell offers a sympathetic bass-baritone as Riccio, and it’s nice to hear another female voice (Gloria Capone) when Mary Seton joins Mary in a lullaby to baby James. Francesco Sorianello and Carlos Serrano provide solid support as Lord Gordon and Cardinal Beaton, Mary’s trusted but doomed advisors. The conductor Peter Mark, Musgrave’s husband, masters her often kaleidoscopic, spiky neo-Romanticism with clarity and insight. —Joanne Sydney Lessner 



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