Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot
Jane Manning (soprano)
Michael Rolnick (dancer)
Jennifer Langridge (cello)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 17 April, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
The joint South Bank Centre/Royal Academy of Music celebration of the music of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies – “Max” – got off to a fine start with this double-bill of two music-theatre classics: reminders, both, of how innovative, provocative and communicative a composer Maxwell Davies was at the time that these pieces were written.
Conceived as a humorous sequel to “Eight Songs for a Mad King”, “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot” (1974) has remained rather in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor. Partly, perhaps, because it is just as serious – tragic, even – as the earlier work, but in a more intimate and elusive way. The true story of Miss Donnithorne – the Australian woman who, abandoned by her lover on their wedding day in 1856, remained in her wedding attire to lead a reclusive existence for the next 30 years – inspired several creators (not least Dickens) before Maxwell Davies and librettist Randolph Stow alighted on the subject. Yet in its combining of black humour and bare emotion, it is hard to imagine the character and the scenario created around her being treated with more sympathy. And, as with the Baroque and Classical archetypes of ‘Mad King’, a wide range of ‘period’ music – Victorian parlour and music-hall songs, ballads and quadrilles, and the Wedding Marches of Wagner and Mendelssohn – is utilised to evoke both the external setting and the inner world in which Miss Donnithorne plays out her alienated and forlorn existence.
Although ‘Mad King’ and ‘Miss Donnithorne’ have often – understandably – been presented in harness, it made for a more disturbing coupling to follow the latter with Vesalii icones (1969). Along with ‘Mad King’, this was the work which broke Maxwell Davies through to a wider audience when issued on Ken Russell- sponsored LPs in the early 1970s – and, in its choreographic superimposition of Medieval anatomical drawing on the 14 Stations of the Cross, it might seem redolent of the worst conceptual excesses of that era. In fact, the two sets of images complement each other well-nigh perfectly: the cumulative emotional force of the Christian symbols lent an expressive distance and perspective by the spatial precision and gestural discipline of the Vesalius poses. As with other of Maxwell Davies’s theatrical works from this period, there is a level on which musical resonance grows more extreme as the scenario nears its climax: thus the emergence of Antichrist as falsely resurrected icon and accompanied by a foxtrot – something either disconcertingly frivolous or disturbingly ominous, according to interpretation.
Both works received performances of controlled conviction. For long associated with the late Mary Thomas, “Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot” is a work Jane Manning has made her own in recent years, and her identification with the figure was palpably evident throughout. The stage setting, which she herself devised, gave the music an appropriate but never confining context (though a little more light in the auditorium with which to refer to the text might not have gone amiss) and the instrumental cameos were unfailingly well characterised. Vesalii icones has different requirements, notably the balancing of a dance element with a chamber discourse featuring solo cello as ‘first among equals’ within the ensemble. As resourceful as was Michael Rolnick’s dancing, it was Jennifer Langridge’s long-breathed and intense assumption of the cello part that really galvanised the performance: a still expressive centre which acts as the recurrent point of tension and release. Psappha made a fine showing under Nicholas Kok, such as ensuing performances in this “Max” retrospective will not find easy to emulate.