The Assassin Tree is a new commission with music by Stuart MacRae and libretto by Simon Armitage. All boded well for its premiere in Edinburgh last month, but it received distinctly mixed reviews. The London premiere on Wednesday was a mix of interest and distraction, with the latter description generally referring to the production by Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten.
The story of the opera is based on part of the James George Frazer study The Golden Bough. Diana’s mystical dwelling is stalked by a lonely priest, and the man who murders him will inherit his role. Armitage’s poetic libretto questions the extent to which the cycle is a matter of divine intervention or of fate, or indeed whether there is a difference between the two.
MacRae’s vivid imagination creates a colourful, if dogmatically atonal, sound world. The opening all hurried strings, agonised brass shrieks and piercing piccolo points to what is to follow. Perhaps MacRae lacks the concision needed to hold such a work together, for even at an hour long, it feels elongated.
More likely is that this is the fault of the production, which is a confused mix of conceptual ideas, held together with no particular thread. The stage is populated with towering silver pillars; Diana’s tree is a pile of stage lights; a tank of water represents a river; a sinister dancer, clothed in black, provides his own physical commentary on the piece. Just when you’ve finished working all that out, a glance upwards reveals a large moon, peeping from behind a pillar, and changing colour to mirror (or otherwise) the action.
MacRae’s music depicts the sinister woodland setting with clarity, yet a glance at the stage revealed no suggestion of such a place. The metallic, angular set seemed ugly and interfering. The lighting should have occasionally painted memorable pictures, yet with so much happening, even this was undermined. The production seemed a miniature version of the Royal Opera’s double bill of Bluebeard’s Castle and Ewartung, yet without the intelligence. This was modernism’ for the sake of it.
Musically, the evening was a lot better. Gillian Keith as Diana looked every bit as seductive as the character demands, and although her high notes were occasionally screamed, her steely soprano penetrated through the Linbury Studio. Now her diction needs to be improved so we can hear what she’s singing about, but given that she had to sing certain lines standing on one leg, how can one be too critical?
As the Priest, Paul Whelan seemed the worse for wear at the start, with ragged phrasing and no gravitas down below, so it was pleasing to hear his voice improving as the performance progressed. Peter Van Hulle‘s tenor had to stretch for those top notes, but the poor guy had to act dead while standing under a trickle of running water, so he also has the sympathy vote. Colin Ainsworth possessed a purer tenor, and his diction was excellent. The Britten Sinfonia, in a scaled down version, seemed awkward with the writing, but conductor Garry Walker created a fierce sound and made sure that the occasionally tiresome brass writing never dominated.
The reason that the evening disappointed was that the direction was so distracting. Too many ideas were crammed into too small a space and too short a stretch of time. A concert performance or a less opinionated staging is in order, so that we can judge MacRae’s composition on its own terms, not on those of his collaborators.