- Peter Maxwell Davies' Worst Nightmare:Staging the Unsacred in the Operas Taverner and Resurrection
Peter Maxwell Davies first began writing music for the stage in the late 1950s. Throughout a series of premieres in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he developed a reputation for experimental vocal and theatrical effects. His Revelation and Fall (1966), for instance, features a singer dressed as a nun who bellows obscenities into a loudspeaker. Davies recruited Vanessa Redgrave to orate Luke's version of the betrayal of Christ in Latin for Missa super l'homme armé (1968, rev. 1971). And in Vesalii icones (1969), a nude dancer who writhes in representation of the Stations of the Cross is revealed at the last minute as the Antichrist. Davies' first opera, Taverner, is based on the historical John Taverner, a late medieval Catholic composer with a troubling story. Having turned his back on the church and his music during the Reformation, Taverner assisted in the ensuing dissolution of the Catholic monasteries. Davies lost half the original manuscript for Taverner in a fire at his Dorset cottage home in 1969 but reconstructed it in time for a 1972 Covent Garden premiere. At the same time, Davies had already begun mulling over a second opera, a companion piece to Taverner called Resurrection, which was almost complete at the time of Taverner's premiere. Resurrection is a black comedy in which the central character (an inflatable dummy) is ritually brutalized by his family and singled out for special correction at the hands of various "Pillars of Society."1 At the end of the opera, the dummy's lobotomization triggers the resurrection of the Antichrist. Resurrection would remain unperformed for nearly twenty years, finally premiering at Darmstadt in 1987.
While the two operas have little in common on the surface, they betray similar dramatic preoccupations. Each precipitates an encounter between a protagonist and the world he inhabits that ends badly for the protagonist. In spite of the fact that he is genuine and moral, or perhaps because of that fact, the protagonist is unable to master the terms and conditions upon which his world is founded and ultimately finds himself occupying a vital role in his own undoing. Both operas feature a cameo from the Antichrist, who, we are given to [End Page 247] understand, is the author of these terms and conditions and thus the probable cause of the fateful trajectory of each of the protagonists. Taverner's conversion is framed not as a well-reasoned decision but as a religious brainwashing. Resurrection replays a similar scenario: this time the dummy occupies Taverner's role, and his lobotomy replaces Taverner's brainwashing.
Taverner and Resurrection share a tandem conception but a strangely dissimilar performance history. Taverner enjoyed brief success on the international stage, while Resurrection, due perhaps to its long incubation and much-delayed premiere, remains among Davies' least-performed and least-liked works. We might imagine the anthropomorphic parallel: a set of twins grows up side by side. Having survived a fire in young adulthood, one emerges unscathed; the other, shattered by the near-death experience, withdraws from the world and is presumed dead. The first enjoys a marginally successful stage career. The other resurfaces decades later, a jaded and nearly unrecognizable doppelgänger of his sibling.
Nearly completed in the early 1960s but unseen until over twenty years later, Resurrection was dated when it was still new, which may also help to explain why it was such a flop. What British audiences in the 1960s would have viewed as a challenge to the establishment (a scene in which a policeman, a judge, and a trade union leader sneak into the same lavatory stall together, or various danced sequences involving characters of indeterminate or overdetermined gender) just wasn't as daring in the 1980s. The TV commercials that dominate a smaller, elevated stage reflect a much earlier, postwar generation of advertising (Vegemite, Spam, Calgon soap). The "Pop Group" poses yet another problem. Designated as a stage band that accompanies the demonic transformation of the dummy's house cat into the Dragon from the Book of Revelation, the group is meant to sound "terrifying"2 but...