Opera: Bound for Botany Bay

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The Independent Culture
FRIEND OF THE PEOPLE SCOTTISH OPERA

OPERAS ON political subjects have had variable fortunes. Giordano's Andrea Chenier is a fine old tear-jerker. Opera needs love, death, passion, but David Horne's Friend of the People, premiered by Scottish Opera, is by comparison completely bloodless. It tells the story of Thomas Muir, an 18th-century Scottish lawyer who fought for fair votes but was deported to Botany Bay.

The libretto, by Liberal Democrat MP Robert Maclennan, follows the story of Muir in such lengthy and detailed narration it resembles more a novel than an opera text. The language, in Shakespearian-style blank verse, has dignity but there are features which stick out embarrassingly, especially as almost every word (all credit to Horne) can be clearly heard. What is extremely odd is that Maclennan occasionally shortens the metre, apparently writing the text for a lyric number. Horne ignores this. He sets the words in a continuous recitative, accompanied by swirling and shimmering textures from a small orchestra - all muted brass, bass clarinet, alto flute and pizzicato. On the one occasion when you think Horne cannot avoid writing a "tune" he fudges it.

After half an hour of this you long for something you can get your ear round. Somebody in the dress circle fell asleep and snored loudly, and the house was conspicuously emptier after the interval.

This deeply unsuccessful score, however, enjoyed the services a brilliant production team. Allen Moyer had designed a single, powerful set (a massive room from a Glasgow tenement) and Joanna Parker's costumes were exactly right. The producer, Christopher Alden, seemed desperate to squeeze a bit of drama out of this theatrical corpse. He had people cackling or screaming with despair, and, with the aid of lighting designer Heather Carson, he organised balletic spectacles with exaggerated tableaux leading to blackouts.

Peter Savidge was splendid as Muir, vocally authoritative and dramatically credible. Clarissa Meek must also be mentioned as a touching Annie (Muir's girlfriend who betrays him); her voice has both colour and character. The conductor was Richard Farnes. His players sounded bored, as well they might.

17 & 19 Nov, Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-529 6000)

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