MUSGRAVE Mary Queen of Scots
This new Lyrita reissue is the third incarnation of Virginia Opera’s live 1978 recording of Thea Musgrave’s fast-moving, gripping three-act opera Mary, Queen of Scots (1976 77). Made only seven months after its Edinburgh Festival premiere (September 1977), the recording first appeared as a Vox three-LP set and resurfaced as a two-CD set from Novello Records. Both previous reviewers in these pages rightly expressed reservations about the cramped, airless sound quality, the roughness of the chorus and the audience noise, especially the ovations which punctuate key climactic moments. Comparing the Novello and Lyrita sets, there is little to choose between them in sound quality; and what still shines through is the vibrancy of the music itself, the orchestral accompaniment (brilliantly rendered by Musgrave’s husband, Peter Mark) and the principals, Ashley Putnam in particular as the Queen, Jake Gardner as her half-brother, James Stewart – in many respects the agent provocateur of the work – and Barry Busse as Bothwell.
Both William Mann and Michael Oliver praised the stage work but had some doubts about its efficacy on disc, or at least this recording. I am not inclined to agree; familiarity with the synopsis or libretto allows one to follow the action, especially as Musgrave’s music guides the listener through clearly enough. It has nearly everything: radiant melodies, especially the Queen’s lullaby for her infant son (later James I of England), vibrant set pieces, as in the ballroom and council scenes, and a compelling plot – which concludes with Mary’s imprisonment in England and separation from her son. The plot concentrates on Mary’s relationships with her brother and lovers (Darnley and Bothwell), and it is this human drama that is the opera’s strong suit. This production is not perfect (and is 40 years old), but it still delivers quite a powerful punch and I happily recommend it.