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Robert Saxton Caritas and other works
Eirian Davies/Jonathan Best/Linda Hibberd/Roger Bryson/Christopher Ventris/Paul Wilson/
David Gwynne
English Northern Philharmonia/Diego Masson

NMC Ancora D 102 [150 mins]

This opera about a 14th C anchoress begins rather like one of Britten's church parables, but it soon takes on a heightened dramatic character and grips you with its appalling story.

The Huddersfield Festival premiere (1991) of the only opera to date by Robert Saxton (b. 1953) was first released on Collins Classics COLL13502 the following year, and hearing samples of the first five scenes on Amazon will give you a good idea of its sound world and the vivid recording, with Eirian Davies affecting, indeed harrowing, to picture as the self-deceiving 16-year old Christine. She soon realises that she is trapped, unable to sustain her dedication nor permitted to revoke her vow to undergo immurement, walled up in a small cell in her church for the remainder of her life.

She becomes mad in the course of this 80 minute opera, two acts but played continuously - such was its intensity that I treated myself to a break between them. Arnold Wesker's libretto is admirably constructed for music theatre from his stage play, and its heart is a demonstration of the destructive effect of dogma upon all who come into contact with it. Christine loses her faith but still remains imprisoned in ghastly seclusion for an unending future; comparisons with current situations are unavoidable. She has only ritual to fall back on when trying to keep madness at bay.

The samples so easily available at the press of a button do not, however, give any indication of the long term mastery of structure and musical continuity and contrast. In the first act we see many aspects of the world outside, her family and friends who try to dissuade her from a self-destructive course, village life, tax collecting and later the beginnings of the Peasants' Revolt.

The shorter second act has Christine alone in a 20 minute 'mad scene', culminating with a distorted Alleluia and an oboe playing her 'song of vows' when she can only speak 'this is a wall, this is a wall' again and again to voice her despair. In the first act Saxon's music displays a real opera composer's skill in counterpointing the text so that equal attention is given to both; in the second the orchestra comes to the forefront as Christine becomes more alone and unable to express herself and the scene has 'a harmonic ground whose incessant cyclic repetitions to reflect Christine's mental state'. They appear to have been an excellent team - Wesker cut a lot of his text for musical purposes and Saxton 'thoroughly re-ordered the second act'. The outcome is a satisfying and unforgettable music drama, perfectly conceived and paced to match the treatment of Arnold Wesker's powerful subject, one which leaves you looking forward to another opera from Robert Saxton, at just over 50 now in his prime.

The Collins catalogue has been substantially rescued by Naxos and NMC, and in this generous two-some re-release Caritas is coupled with choral and orchestral works by Robert Saxton from 1986-90, conducted by Steuart Bedford, Matthias Bamert and John Poole, with Tasmin Little playing his violin concerto. Production standards are at NMC's highest, with a complete libretto of Caritas, and purchase is recommended without reservation.

See also my earlier review of Robert Saxton's A yardstick to the stars & other chamber works on NMC D065

© Peter Grahame Woolf