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MAXWELL DAVIES: Resurrection

spacer Jones, Carewe; Robson, Hill, Jenkins, Herford, Finley Best; BBC Philharmonic, Maxwell Davies.  English text. Naxos 8.660359-60 (2)

Recordings Maxwell Davies Resurrection lg 515

One doesn’t normally expect to rock out to the music of Peter Maxwell Davies — once the enfant terrible of contemporary British music, and now its eminence grise — but it’s tempting to do exactly that during certain parts of his Resurrection. The piece is a nihilistic, pan-stylistic opera the composer began work on as a Princeton undergraduate in the early sixties, but which did not reach the stage until 1987. (The present performance was recorded in 1994 and originally released by Collins Classics.) Davies’ rock tunes are great fun, but if you find yourself enjoying them too much, you might be missing the point: they’re meant to represent the vapid methods of indoctrination society uses to make the individual conform to its expectations. Regardless, one certainly gets the feeling that Max (as his friends and colleagues call him) enjoyed writing them — one is in a zippy, lopsided 5/8 meter, and at least a couple of others are certifiably catchy.

In this intoxicatingly mad parable, our beleaguered protagonist is a life-sized dummy, still and silent throughout. The first voice we hear is that of his Mam, who is sung by a countertenor (the spirited and obviously game Christopher Robson). For Americans, it’s hard to hear a male falsetto voice with a British accent without thinking of Monty Python; this, as it turns out, is a fair point of reference for the zaniness that follows. Lambasted from all sides by his family members and household visitors for various perceived transgressions (laziness, self-pleasuring, spying on acts of incest, insufficient devotion to Jesus, and other things dummies are not normally guilty of), our hero is required to undergo an operation that will transform him from a deviant outcast into a properly conformist and obedient member of society (shades of 1984 and A Clockwork Orange). Frequent interruptions come from a quartet of amplified singers, who intone a series of intrusive, increasingly strange television commercials, and a Cat (sung with gusto by the high-belting Mary Carewe), who propels the dummy toward his ominous fate with the above-mentioned rock songs, and is ultimately transfigured into a fire-spitting Dragon, for good measure. This is just the Prologue; the main Act is an even more outlandish fantasia, wherein the hapless dummy is surrounded by ranting, ideologically accusatory clergymen, religious crusaders, communists, capitalists, mythological figures, and homophobes, all while he is in the middle of a grotesque, disfiguring operation that removes his brain, heart and genitals, leaving savage wounds and hideously unnatural replacements. Oh, and the botched procedure also conjures the Antichrist, who turns out to be a mezzo-soprano (the intrepid Della Jones), for those of you who were wondering. In the course of the proceedings, we are treated to a tap number, a Jazz Dream Sequence, a fox trot, hymns, waltzes, and brass band music, all of which are given the subversive Maxwell Davies treatment. The composer (who wrote his own libretto) isn’t necessarily saying it’s bad that we face hypocrisy and commercialism at every turn; he’s just saying that, while we may accept it all as normal, it’s actually pretty darn bizarre and occasionally frightening. The anti-establishment spirit and the avant-garde feel to the music might seem a bit dated, but the themes are (sadly) ever-relevant — ideological onslaught from constantly multiplying media sources has only increased since 1987. Max’s detailed staging instructions in the libretto (such as “Antichrist’s head slowly transforms into a skull/deathshead … His hair becomes writhing snakes, as he, and all the stage, are slowly consumed in an apocalyptic, all-devastating infernal light”) imply that an imaginative director could have some serious fun mounting this difficult but intriguing piece. Any takers? spacer 

JOSHUA ROSENBLUM

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