Thursday, 2 August 2018

Into the mind of Bloody Mary: Martin Bussey & Di Sherlock's Mary's Hand

Martin Bussey: Mary's Hand - Clare McCaldin (Photo Robert Workman)
Martin Bussey: Mary's Hand - Clare McCaldin (Photo Robert Workman)
Martin Bussey & Di Sherlock Mary's Hand; Clare McCaldin; Tête à Tête the Opera Festival at Holy Cross Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 1 Aug 2018
Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)

A real tour-de-force, mezzo Clare McCaldin in a one-woman opera about Mary Tudor

Mary's Hand, which debuted earlier this year, is a new opera by composer Martin Bussey with a libretto by Di Sherlock. Performed as a one-woman show by mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin, the production directed by Di Sherlock was presented at Holy Cross Church in Kings Cross by McCaldin Arts as part of Tête à Tête the Opera Festival. Set design was by Andie Scott, costume design by Andie Scott and Sophie Meyer, and the instrumental accompaniment was provided by a trio consisting of Heidi Bennett (trumpet), Clare Hoskins (oboe/cor anglais) and Gabriella Swallow (cello).

Lasting around 80 minutes, the opera explores the personality of Queen Mary I (Mary Tudor or Bloody Mary), not so much to excuse as to explain. Mary's life was dramatic and complex, her father's heiress for a period, she was betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor at the age of six, but later political developments saw her declared a bastard and repeated attempts were made to force her to change her religion. When Queen, her marriage to King Philip of Spain was unpopular and brought personal pain when it became apparent she could not conceive.

Sherlock's text approaches this via Mary's love of games, dice and cards so that the opera is structured via the hand of eleven cards that Mary is dealt by fate, the cards standing for herself and the important people in her life. An element of chance is brought into the show by allowing the audience members to choose the next card. This rather makes the piece episodic, but there is no doubt that the tale is riveting.

And the performance from Clare McCaldin was a real tour-de-force as she brilliantly incarnated Mary, going from imperious Queen to tragic heroine at the end. McCaldin brought a real sense of personality to the performance, and held us gripped as Mary explored the various factors which contributed to her make up. We were never asked to excuse, but this was a very human portrayal and we were profoundly aware of the person and all her problems, and you felt the drama leading us into the complexities of Mary's mind.


McCaldin's dress deserved a separate billing of its own, based on one worn in the portrait of Mary by Hans Eworth and funded partly via crowd-funding, it gradually dismantled, allowing McCaldin to remove layers so that as events progressed Mary seemed to diminish, leaving only the slight McCaldin in a shift at the end, with the dress looking regal without its owner.

Having the event in an elaborate church seemed very appropriate, given the importance of religion to Queen Mary's life. Unfortunately, the church's acoustic mitigated against hearing the detail of vocal line and text. I have heard Clare McCaldin performing one-woman operas before, notably Vivienne by Stephen McNeff, but these performances were in the concert hall where it was possible to get a concentrated power into the text. Here, despite McCaldin's best efforts, much text went astray and as the instrumentalists were also affected by the resonant acoustic, sometimes they masked vocal details.

Martin Bussey's music was essentially tonal, using a variety of motifs to characterise the different aspects of the action. We started with a striking fanfare figure on the trumpet, and other figures arose from plainchant used during Mary's reign (notably that for 'Puer natus est nobis'). In creating music drama, Bussey was perhaps not helped by the cyclical, hand of cards structure of the text, and whilst individual scenes worked well, I felt the lack of a cumulated sense of dramatic power. This was a terrific tale, well told by McCaldin, but the music did not quite seem to build tension the way it should. Bussey's music was at its best in the quieter moments particularly at the end, when all the trappings of queen-hood fall away.

Martin Bussey: Mary's Hand - Clare McCaldin (Photo Robert Workman)
Martin Bussey: Mary's Hand - Clare McCaldin (Photo Robert Workman)
At the end, I must return to Clare McCaldin's performance. A remarkable feat of stamina and power, creating a dramatic narrative and holding our attention for 80 minutes, making Queen Mary live before our eyes.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Suppleness and elegance: a new Les Pêcheurs de Perles from an all-French team (★★★★★) - CD review
  • SWAP'ra gala at Opera Holland Park  - concert review
  • Enterprising rarity: Ethel Smyth's The Boatswain's Mate at Grimeborn (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Spinto showcase: Angel of Fire from Katerina Mina (★★★½) - CD review
  • Bernstein's problem child: a lively & engaging Candide at West Green House (★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Lucretia through a newcomer’s eyes and ears: Britten at the Grimeborn Festival (★★★½) - opera review
  • Prom 17: Parry, Holst & Vaughan Williams (★★★★) - concert review
  • Approaching Winterreise: Angelika Kirchschlager on performing Schubert's great song cycle  - interview
  • Richly Romantic: Mascagni rarity, Isabeau, brought to life at Opera Holland Park (★★★★½) - opera review
  • A disturbing journey: Schubert's Winterreise from Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Byron's Grand Tour: Alison Pitt & Gavin Roberts at the St Marylebone Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • Home

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