Deft but no depth
In 30 years the Barbican’s concert hall can never have been quite so crowded. By the time the bows were taken after the premiere of Peter Maxwell Davies’s final work, there was barely a spare square foot of unoccupied space onstage. The Master of the Queen’s Music, who died in March, did not go out on a modest chamber piece for two tin whistles and a triangle but with a teeming celebration of community musicmaking conducted by Simon Rattle.
The Hogboon is a children’s opera calling for such vast forces that this first performance seems unlikely to be swiftly followed by more. Joining the massed ranks of the London Symphony Chorus were the Guildhall School Singers and the LSO Discovery Choirs. Between them, seasoned professionals, hopeful students and young amateurs squeezed a reduced LSO into one corner of the stage, though they were augmented by three trumpets and a pair of percussionists stationed in the circle who delivered ceremonial fanfares and drumrolls.
The libretto was the composer’s own, adapted from Orcadian myths of his adopted home. The story of a tempestuous demon of the deep which can be pacified by a pure young hero must have been a consoling tale to set to music. The islanders are assailed by a terror of Nuckleavee, who has a particular hunger to snack on young female flesh, only to be stopped by the seventh child of a seventh child.
Step forward a young fantasist called Magnus who sets forth to defy the Nuckleavee. On his quest he receives support from a good witch and her cat, plus a friendly spirit (a baritone role for Mark Stone), who gives the opera its title. The music finds Maxwell Davies at his most inclusive and celebratory, but also satisfyingly weird and dissonant. The overture – hovering strings then an abrupt brass fanfare – evoked the ominous maritime music of Peter Grimes, as did the LSO Chorus entering in mufti as the voice of the local community. Some of the writing had a Prokofievian sheen, while the solo role of Magnus was a huge challenge for Sebastian Exall in terms of range and testing intervals, resulting in the odd tuning issue. Director Karen Gillingham and designer Rhiannon Newman-Brown had only atmospheric lighting and costumes, plus a mound of earth with shrubs, but made resourceful nods in all sorts of directions. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was evoked in the soil-tilling brothers in dungarees and their Nordic maidens. And there was a miaowing echo of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s felines in Capucine Daumas’s Cat and her litter of singing kittens. The more singers crowded onstage, the livelier the entertainment, culminating in the descent through the stalls of the children’s choir dressed as dancing clumps of seaweed. Rattle on the podium simply melded into this crowded vision and somehow kept everyone singing and playing from the same sheet.
Sebastian Exall, left, with Mark Stone
Simon Rattle conducts the LSO and several choirs at the Barbican