Mara (School Opera in Croydon)
John Hastie: Mara
On Dec 14-16 Whitgift School in Croydon presented its own opera. If it was homemade it was very far from homespun: English text and music were by masters of those subjects.
Roy Kennedy’s libretto tells of the sea princess Mara, her wish to visit the world above for love of the land prince Eric, and her trials and final triumph: vincit qui patitur. The text has excellent verbal quality, including some genuine humour. However, the sea-symbolism was so relevant at so many levels (eg “O” and “A” levels, as the author suggests) that it seemed unnecessary to lake it with a grain of salt. Perhaps the serious ideas not only grew out of, but outgrew, their original intentions. But if this is a defect, it is shared by the great fantasies of Tolkien (and what libretti they could make!); and since the result is a personal one, in the sense of being worked out ad hoc and not just adopted from the conventions of a society, it has true originality.
So has the score, sometimes startlingly so. The association of sea-music with the idea of making an opera suggests a presiding genius; but John Hastie has a voice of his own as a composer, and it proclaims a very real dramatic gift. His alert melodies live along the line of the text, pointing it and making it vivid time and again. Different orders of being are traditionally distinguished by rhythmic variety (as by Strauss in dramatic, Wolf in lyric, forms); here the denizens of the sea-bed (the lowest of the low, as it were) are sharply characterized in this way.
A more taxing problem however is set by the vital contrast of different levels of perception. The composer offers a tonal answer: in Eb major for the depths, as in Rheingold, and in A major for the brighter world abuse, another traditional and satisfying procedure. Perhaps it was less convincing to symbolize the union of the two by the half-way stage of major. The idea of identifying a units by splitting a difference seemed effective mainly to those who had conned their notes (score or programme) beforehand.
But the important thing was that idea was being matched with idea, concept with concept; and if to elicit such a response is the first test of a libretto, and to provide it the first test of a score, then both pass with honours.
The scoring was deft and inventive, with effective piano and organ parts, and the playing impressively competent and robust so much so indeed that voices above and below sea-level were in constant danger of drowning, which rather damped some of the climaxes. Still, the well-disciplined chorus sang out with fine spirit; the soloists were good (in particular C. B. Rathbone as Eric had an agreeable and fluent voice and an assured stage presence) and all concerned with the production had clearly displayed prodigies of enthusiasm and resource.
In short, Mara was the very paradigm, not to say paragon, of school opera, and in Act 2 perhaps more besides; for on occasion, after the princess from under the water had come up, one might almost have fancied that fire had come down.