Mary, Queen of Scots
(1975-77) An Opera in Three Acts
Singers: 5 principal, 3 comprimario, 4 minor
Libretto by the composer, based on Amalia Elguera's Moray
Commissioned by Scottish Opera
6 September 1977, Edinburgh International Festival
Thea Musgrave, conductor
Colin Graham, director
29 March 1978
Publisher: Novello & Co Ltd
This is Thea Musgrave's fourth opera and by far her most successful; indeed her complete mastery of the operatic medium and the skill with which she marshals the whole complex apparatus with which an opera composer is confronted, mark her out as one of the most successful composers for the lyric theatre today. Rarely since Peter Grimes have I been as impressed by the first hearing of a contemporary stage work. Thea Musgrave has that rare gift of being able to create characters who are musically as well as dramatically viable; to create and maintain dramatic tension; and to write music that is at once original and at the same time easily accessible.
Harold Rosenthal, Opera
The bull's-eye is Scottish Opera's Mary, Queen of Scots...Against all known odds it has a better chance of becoming established in the repertory than any new work seen here in the last ten years...Musgrave's musical language, vaguely post-Britten, eschews the angular declamation that has been so depressing a characteristic of contemporary opera. Her writing for voice is as satisfying to listen to as it must be to sing...this a twentieth century grand opera, and it works.
Rodney Milnes, Spectator
There is more theatrical red blood in this Mary than in most of the new operas that reach the contemporary stage. Miss Musgrave is a lively, inventive, accomplished composer, who has shown dramatic gifts not only in three earlier operas, but in a whole sequence of concert works that are mainly cast in quasi-dramatic form. The composer...has written the libretto herself; and an admirable text it is, clear and straightforward in language, well moulded for the stage, and full of musical possibilities that should strike us as we read it in advance...All in all it was a gripping and inspiring occasion.
Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Sunday Times (London)
There is a sure congruence between musical and theatrical proportions. Each episode has just enough words and just enough action to allow a full yet economical musical development. Nothing goes on too long. Dramatic and musical pacing, transitions, variety of tension, of texture, and of density, contrasts of expansive lyricism and quick-moving music are controlled in a masterly way.
...Whenever I have been bowled over, carried away, by a Musgrave composition as I was by Mary, Queen of Scots it has nearly always been at second and subsequent hearings, once first-encounter admiration of her sheer competence, her effortless matching of means to ends and of demands to the executants for whom she wrote, has been registered and can be taken for granted.
A first hearing of Mary was enough to make it apparent how profitably Musgrave has pondered the problems of writing contemporary opera and found her solutions to them...At a second hearing, I found myself forgetting about the careful planning, the parallels, the influences, and instead caring very much about Mary herself move by move, event by event and being at the same time rapt in the music, intent on the movement of the melodic lines, calmed or excited by the shifting patterns of harmonic tension, and stirred by the colors of the score. There is visionary quality in Mary.
Andrew Porter, The New Yorker
...a stunning entry into the ranks. With its historic-fictional libretto by the composer (based on Amalia Elguera's Moray), she has achieved a striking series of dramatic incidents in the life of Mary between her return from France and escape to England, 1561-68. There is an almost dizzying build up of dramatic tension among the principal figures in the grasping for the Scottish crown, the story centreing on the impossible hope for peace amid a series of misjudged decisions by the queen, setting as its themes those of power and loneliness. Mary is first and foremost splendid drama conveyed via music, excelling in word-setting and in striking orchestral commentary...
Robert Jacobson, Opera News
It is rare to be able to acclaim the arrival of a major new opera in this day and age. But such is Thea Musgrave's Mary, Queen of Scots an imposing, magnificent work which proves that hope must never be abandoned...
But the music is the thing, and in a superb orchestral fabric, Miss Musgrave weaves a spell of compelling power and magical impact. There is a constant undercurrent of turmoil throughout the score: she is uncanny in her ability musically to depict clashes in style Mary's French elegance vs her rough-hewn Scottish courtiers, etc. And her use of melody is rare by any current standards.
Thor Eckert, The Christian Science Monitor
(West Coast Premiere, San Francisco, 1979)
...I thought it was far the best work Spring Opera has ever brought to San Francisco...
Unlike Donizetti's opera Maria Stuarda this opera focuses on the historic and chaotic political pressures [as well as personal ones] on the young Mary. She has just returned to Scotland as the widow of the Dauphin of France. She is a Catholic Queen in a Protestant country. She is also confronted by her ambitious half-brother James, the bastard son of James V [and thus excluded from any consideration as Monarch], by the rival Earl of Bothwell, a soldier who has always been loyal to her family, and eventually by a suitor from England - Henry, Lord Darnley, an heir to both Scottish and English thrones. Marriage to him would seem to secure the throne of both countries for her son.
But Darnley proves to be a very unsuitable Consort, trusted by no-one. Later, he is murdered, Mary is compromised for she very unwisely marries Bothwell who is under suspicion of Darnley's murder. She is forced to abdicate and flees to England leaving her son in Scotland to become King. Mary will now be in the power of her cousin Elizabeth.
It is 1561 and Mary, Catholic Queen of Scotland and widowed Queen of France, has been invited by the Protestant Lords to return and assume the Scottish crown. James, Earl of Moray, half-brother of Mary and bastard son of James V of Scotland, imprisons the Catholic Cardinal Beaton who exposes Jamess ambition for the crown which cannot be his and who has written to Mary urging her to place her trust in the Earl of Bothwell. In a cold and misty dawn, Mary arrives at the Port of Leith after sorrowfully bidding farewell to her beloved France. She is met by the rival Earls of Moray and Bothwell who confront each other with political and ambitious recriminations. Mary skilfully avoids showing one more favour than the other and the procession moves forward to Edinburgh where she is welcomed warmly by her people. A year later, the Lord Gordon unsuccessfully urges the people to rise against James for his part in the death of Cardinal Beaton. He is warned by the Earl of Morton, a satellite of James, that his words would be treasonable if they had not fallen on such deaf ears. Scotland now follows Knox and the Protestant faith and Marys brother James stands at her side to advise her. Mary welcomes Henry, Lord Darnley, cousin to herself and to Elizabeth of England, at a court ball where Riccio, his Italian friend, is acting as master of ceremonies. Mary appears to be fascinated by the youthful and cultivated Englishman, much to Jamess disgust. He regards Darnley, who is all too clearly paying court to Mary, as an unsuitable consort and as an obstacle to his own position as her sole adviser. Bothwell, also fascinated by Mary, is equally mistrustful of Darnley. Mary is clearly anxious to consolidate her position. Mary soliloquizes on the rivals to her hand, heart and throne; she is clearly anxious to consolidate her position in Scotland and marriage to Darnley could well effect this since he is heir to both Scottish and English thrones. After averting disaster when Bothwell and his men seek to disrupt the "foreign" dances with a lewd and lusty reel by joining in it herself, Bothwell insults Darnley and Mary banishes him. Jamess pleasure is shortlived when Mary displays her intentions towards Darnley. James too leaves the court.
In the absence of both James and Bothwell Mary has married Darnley. The Lords of the Council are outspoken about the unsuitability of the drunken Darnley as Mary's consort, and contemptuous of Riccio's appointment as the Queen's secretary. Darnley continues to press Mary, who is now pregnant with his child, to make him King, but the Lords are adamant in their determination that this shall never be. Mary, aware that she needs a strong man to help her govern and that Darnley is unsuitable, has sent for James to return and appease the Lords of the Council. Morton and Ruthven, at Jamess instigation, incite Darnley into demanding the Crown; they persuade him that Mary prefers James to him and even that Riccio, Darnleys old friend, has wormed his way into her affections and should be stamped out. James returns, determined to assume de facto power. Mary begs him to support her and her child but is not prepared to accede to his demands for power. Finally her eyes are opened and she condemns him for his duplicity and for his part in the death of Beaton. They are irrevocably estranged. Gradually Mary, out of orbit among her three stars, James, Henry and Bothwell, realizes that she must stand entirely alone and that therein lies her strength. James puts his plan into effect. Darnley, brought to a pitch of drunken paranoia by Morton and Ruthven, disrupts a peaceful domestic scene in Marys supper-room where Riccio and the Four Maries (her faithful childhood friends and ladies-in-waiting) entertain her with music. Darnley murders Riccio at Marys feet: he is led away in a stupor leaving James to relish the success of his stratagem. The Council are now divided as to whether James should be given their official support as Regent and their deliberations are interrupted by the news that Mary has fled. James goes to the restless people and accuses Mary of complicity in Riccios murder and desertion of her realm. Gordon defies him. James is about to overwhelm him when Mary appears among the crowd; she accuses James of arranging the murder in order to discredit Darnley and herself and to gratify his own ambition. She banishes him for life and her people stand with her.
Mary is weak and ill after the birth of her son and her determination to stand alone has dissolved. Gordon brings the news that James has raised an army against her and has rallied the people to take his side. She must now take refuge in the castle of Stirling; whatever happens to her, it is vital that her son, the future James VI of Scotland (and James I of England) shall be preserved. She refuses; she has already sent for Bothwell who will protect her and her son. Gordon is appalled; on no account must she trust Bothwell. His fears are justified when Bothwell later returns and seduces her as the price for his protection. They are discovered by James who has by now infiltrated his men into the palace. When Gordon returns to announce Darnleys murder he sees that Mary is irrevocably compromised. James and Bothwell confront each other; Bothwell is outnumbered and subsequently wounded and defeated. Incited by James, the people demand Marys abdication in favour of her infant son. She obstinately refuses to leave while there is still time to save herself and turns once more to the people for their support. She is overwhelmed by the ferocity of their accusations that she is her husbands murderer. Gordon has already sent her son into safety and she is tricked into fleeing alone. As she crosses into England where she faces imprisonment for the rest of her life, Gordon murders James, Earl of Moray, and her son is proclaimed King of Scotland.
Mary, Queen of Scots
Peter Mark, conductor
Novello Records NVLCD108
LP MMG 301
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