CUNNINGHAM The Okavango Macbeth
Having set up an opera house in Botswana, how best to go about creating the basis of a repertoire on which to build? Librettist Alexander McCall Smith – founder of The No 1 Ladies’ Opera House (named after his highly successful detective novels) – and composer Tom Cunningham made an auspicious start with The Okavango Macbeth: a retelling of the central facet from the famous story, set in the Okavango Delta and contrasting the behavioural patterns of a baboon colony with those of a group of primatologists – observing each other with a bemused fascination against a backdrop of Eden sacrificed and regained, the more real for its being imagined.
McCall Smith has fashioned a direct and communicative libretto to which Cunningham has responded with a score whose easy (though never facile) melodic and rhythmic interplay is made possible through a repetition of themes as rigorous as it is understated. Vocal writing, too, has an unforced eloquence – centring on Rónan Busfield’s constantly vacillating Macbeth, Beth Mackay’s scheming yet vulnerable Lady Macbeth and Andrew McTaggart’s warmly trusting Duncan; their fateful actions commented on at a far from objective remove by the scientists, who recognise the all too close proximity with those decisions that govern the human domain.
The present account was set down earlier this year and benefits from the sympathetic acoustic of the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh. Singers from Edinburgh Studio Opera make for an enthusiastic ‘Greek Chorus’, while the instrumental writing is ably handled by the ever-enterprising Mr McFall’s Chamber (whose founder, Robert McFall, provided the resourceful orchestrations) and incisively conducted by Michael Bawtree.
Presentation is stylish, with the absence of more detailed notes no hardship in a work whose expressive content speaks for itself. The inclusion in the twin booklets of stills, presumably taken from the original production, make one curious to know whether that Botswana staging was actually filmed and, if so, whether a commercial release might be possible. For now, this recording does justice to an unusual though worthwhile undertaking – one which has persuasively fulfilled its implicit brief to educate yet also entertain.