The Assassin Tree

The Assassin Tree – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Simon Armitage [Co-commissioned by ROH2 and Edinburgh International Festival]

Diana – Gillian Keith
Priest – Paul Whelan
Slave – Peter Van Hulle
Youth – Colin Ainsworth

Britten Sinfonia
Garry Walker

Emio Greco & Pieter C. Scholten – Directors, lighting, set concept
Clifford Portier & Jeroen Van Tuyl – costumes
Henk Danner – lighting
Joost Rekveld – video

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 September, 2006
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Although he has built a fair reputation, Stuart MacRae’s achievements have been in the orchestral and chamber spheres, with little indication as to whether he could create vocal lines flexible enough to articulate a substantial time-frame.

As it is, there are very few instances in “The Assassin Tree”, MacRae’s debut opera – first heard at the Edinburgh International Festival at the end of August – where the musical effectiveness of his vocal writing is in real doubt: moreover, the instrumentation is of a harmonic density but also a textural translucency that throws the voice parts into relief, which ensures their intelligibility at all times, at least when heard in the acoustic of the Linbury Studio Theatre – by now established as the premier venue for chamber-opera in London.

As adapted by Simon Armitage from the opening section of George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough”, the narrative owes something to Harrison Birtwistle in evoking aspects of ceremony and elements of internal repetition or correlation between events on stage. Thus Diana is at one with the tree in her sacred grove, guarded by a priest grown weary through constant devotion to his cause – and awaiting another to usurp his position in an unchanging pattern of continuity through renewal. The first ‘contender’ is an escaped slave whose ignorance of the grove’s divinity leads to his demise: the second comes suitably prepared– overcoming the priest, only to realise their filial bond as he takes up the role for which he is predestined.

MacRae (born in 1976) has approached this as a continuous work whose three acts are not only equal in length (the whole plays for nearly 70 minutes) but also follow a similar formal and expressive trajectory in their arrangement of solos and ensembles – above all, in their placing of maximum emotional emphasis just prior to the point of musical and, in the final act, dramatic resolution. Serial and modal elements can be detected in the compositional fabric – but, as with his other large-scale works since the Violin Concerto (an excellent recording of which has appeared on NMC), MacRae’s idiom is rarely less than distinctive and often personal: here, in the way individual motifs are deployed out of dramatic context in the interests of musical cohesion. Direction and set-design, by Emio Greco and Pieter C. Scholten, reinforce this dramatically through its stark imagery and the visual formality of pre-ordained action on stage – with the masked figure whose mime sequences self-consciously shadow Diana’s appearances the one real shortcoming.

Among the cast, Gillian Keith’s Diana stands out for its vibrancy and accuracy across some exacting passages, as well as for the sheer immediacy with which she conveys the character of a goddess with the demeanour of a Melisande and the mindset of a Lulu. Paul Whelan is perhaps a little too virile and assured to convey the fatigue that causes the Priest to anticipate his own demise, though his vocal commitment is never in doubt. Peter Van Hulle is sympathetic as the Slave who engages in the folly of a contest while bring in ignorance of the ‘rules’, and Colin Ainsworth is comparably in command as the Youth whose confidence becomes tinged with fatalism as he realises the inevitability of his role in the scheme of things. Garry Walker directs the Britten Sinfonia with evident insight into the musical qualities giving MacRae’s writing its individuality and effectiveness as an overall dramatic concept.

A fine realisation, then, of a gripping stage-work, and which gives notice of an arresting dramatic talent – MacRae’s future ventures are keenly awaited.

  • Further performances on September 7 & 8 at 7.30
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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