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Musgrave: Mary, Queen of Scots

Carlos Serrano, Jake Gardner, Ashley Putnam et al; Virginia Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Peter Mark (Lyrita)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

Musgrave Mary, Queen of Scots
Carlos Serrano, Jake Gardner, Ashley Putnam, Francesco Sorianello, Robert Randolph, Pietro Pozzo, Barry Busse, Gloria Capone, Nancy Boling, Ann Scholten, Pamela Scott, Jon Garrison, Kenneth Bell; Virginia Opera Chorus & Orchestra/Peter Mark
Lyrita SRCD2369 132:28 mins (2 discs)

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Thea Musgrave’s Mary, Queen of Scots, premiered by Scottish Opera in 1977, is a drama on a grand scale, based on the play Moray by Amalia Elguera. It’s crammed with power, treachery, passion and murder from start to finish. Mary Stuart (written as Stewart) returns from France to rule Scotland to find herself surrounded by men who want her throne, her body or her destruction, sometimes all three. These men include her treacherous brother, James; the weak, drunken Lord Darnley, who marries her and lets her down; and the Earl of Bothwell, who rapes her, sparking her ultimate rejection by her people. Musgrave puts this considerable drama under a musical magnifying glass: her word-setting amplifies all the intensity and the voices shine out against a deftly detailed orchestral background that is strong yet transparent, responsive to the ongoing torrent of conflicting emotions.

Mary is a role fit for any prima donna. Ashley Putnam is magnetically convincing, maintaining strength throughout yet never missing the Queen’s vulnerability, and soaring through the devastating final scenes, while Jake Gardner catches the jealous ferment of James. At the helm, conductor Peter Mark balances the powerful singing of the full cast and the colourful orchestration to fine effect. A few infelicities include ragged chorus moments, slightly dry recorded sound and, in the printed libretto, the effects of misspelling – eg, ‘I trust not James Stewart’ (It’s a Wonderful Life this ain’t). This live recording from the Virginia Opera dates from 1979, but stagings today of this brilliant work are not plentiful. Let’s hope for a new one soon.

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Jessica Duchen