Holy Cross Church, King’s Cross
Reviewed – 2nd August 2018
“As much as this piece tries to play its cards right, it doesn’t always have the best hand”
It’s festival time again folks. The summer may mean hot sticky weather, ice cream, rooftop bars and everyone generally being more upbeat, but it is also when a plethora of events happen, celebrating the arts. Right now, it is opera’s time to shine with the month long festival, Tête À Tête – a showcase of some of the UK’s, and the rest of the world’s finest talent, with an emphasis on premiering new work. This includes Di Sherlock and Martin Bussey’s latest piece, Mary’s Hand. An opera for the solo voice, it brings the life of Queen Mary I centre stage in the most inventive manner, if not always hitting the right note.
Known to most by her nickname, Bloody Mary, as the queen who burnt so many at the stake and locked her sister in the Tower of London, she did also suffer great torment and struggles both personally and professionally, which is rarely retold. Mary’s Hand gives the queen a chance to present her own account on what happened throughout her reign, reflecting on how it affected her. Clare McCaldin, the mezzo-soprano in the mammoth role of Mary, uses a deck of cards (playing card games was supposedly a favourite pastime for the queen) to distinguish a new chapter and, or, key person within her majesty’s life. With the guidance of a trio of musicians, McCaldin uses Bussey’s score to convey the emotional turmoil that embroiled Mary’s life.
Di Sherlock, who has written the libretto for this piece admits, “a linear narrative did not fit” to the events of Mary’s timeline, hence making the decision of using the language of playing cards to tell her story. This clever and imaginative device certainly helps to provide a fresh look at Mary. The public persona from the history books is gradually discarded to reveal the woman who truly lay underneath. As much as the theme of a card game tries to link events, it still comes across disjointed. Being a singular voice, it struggles at times to find the drama, feeling more like a sung history class instead.
Set within the impressive architecture of Holy Cross Church, King’s Cross, and with the stunning Tudor replica costume skilfully made by Andie Scott and Sophie Meyer, aesthetically, Mary’s Hand cannot be faulted. As the night skies draw in through the recital, so do the wonderfully atmospheric shadows amongst the candlelight, helping to transport you to another era.
McCaldin certainly gives an assured and accomplished performance. I cannot call myself a connoisseur of opera, however, I can recognise the virtuosity of the mezzo-soprano’s voice. Unfortunately it is the content itself that proves the weakest link. As excellent an idea as portraying Queen Mary I’s life is, it still sits uncomfortably. The extraordinary historical events need a larger cast and the power of multiple voices to truly convey the heightened drama of what occurred. As much as this piece tries to play its cards right, it doesn’t always have the best hand.
Reviewed by Phoebe Cole
Photography by Robert Workman
Holy Cross Church, King’s Cross
Part of the Tête à Tête Opera Festival