For James MacMillan, the opportunity this week to re-stage his first major opera Inés de Castro is every bit as exciting as when the original production was premiered by Scottish Opera at the 1996 Edinburgh International Festival.
Back then MacMillan was still cutting his teeth in the operatic world. “It was a very thrilling time,” he says. “That kind of honest, youthful excitement about the unknown and trying something so big and exciting is something I remember clearly.”
It was a work, dedicated to the memory of Sir Alexander Gibson, that invited controversy over its violent subject matter, and some stinging criticism of MacMillan’s heavily-laden orchestration and the production’s pedantic tendencies.
Based on the true story of Inés, the 14th century Spanish mistress of the Crown Prince of Portugal, and written to a libretto worked up from Jo Clifford’s 1989 play for the Traverse Theatre, Jonathan Moore’s original stage direction pulled no punches when it came to realising the hotbed of steamy characters and their acts of betrayal, not to mention brutal infanticide, graphic torture and the hideous crowning of Inés’ dead corpse.
Then, still in his 30s, MacMillan was struck by the negativity of some of the responses. “Unfortunately, it had been hyped up no end, so it was bound to fall to an extent,” he says. “So I suddenly found myself in all the papers, some saying it was pornographic, some saying is was immoral and manipulative. As a young composer, that was hard to take.
“But beneath the more outlandish comments, there were genuine points about practical things, especially from friends, that I thought were relevant and important. And over the years, as it bedded into my subconscious, I began to realise there was something about it that hadn’t reached fruition, and that at some time it would be worth revisiting. If I hadn’t liked the piece, I’d just have let it lie.”
Far from letting it lie, Scottish Opera has presented MacMillan with the golden opportunity he has been waiting for, and the opening of this brand new production by stage director Olivia Fuchs – which will have two performances in both Glasgow and Edinburgh – will be significantly altered from the original version, both musically and theatrically.
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When I spoke to him before Christmas, MacMillan, who is conducting the performances this time, was in the early stages of rehearsal. “It’s been a delight to do it with a new set of ears and a new set of eyes, as interpreter as well as composer,” he says.
That’s enabled him to tie up the loose ends he felt were left hanging after the original production. “I knew I would have to deal with these if I ever came back to the opera,” he explains. “And having a new producer on board has allowed me to rethink the whole thing in terms of what needed to be changed, and what needed to be cut.”
The biggest excision comes in the very opening scene, originally a lengthy discussion between Inés and her nurse about their previous life in Spain. “They seemed to be harking back far too much,” he believes. “I really needed to establish the balance of narrative much more quickly. It didn’t, so I’ve taken that scene out.”
Overall, MacMillan has aimed to make the whole thing tighter and, in response to past criticism of heavy orchestration, and with a whole new cast at his disposal, is making changes on the hoof as rehearsals progress. He’s reconsidered some of the word setting, even some of the vocal tessitura, where sometimes, if the pitch was too low, the words were not being heard.
“The experience I’ve had now of a couple of other operas [the smaller-scale Parthenogenesis and Clemency as well as his other large-scale opera The Sacrifice] has allowed me to rethink some of those lines,” he says.
Those who recall the harsh realism of the original production – I last saw it when Scottish Opera performed to sell-out audiences in Portugal – will find Fuchs’s new setting softer, more feminine. “I’ve seen the production emerge daily,” says MacMillan. “It’s extremely interesting to have a woman’s perspective. After all, this is a woman’s story, a mother’s story. Olivia, who has children of her own, brings something of a mother’s anxiety that a single man simply can’t.”
And there’s a more contemporary feel to Fuchs’s reworking, too, which MacMillan describes as being set “in a slightly fantasy world that toys with the gap between the ancient past and near present”.
“It could be the 1970s,” he expands. “Portugal and Spain are mentioned throughout, but there’s something there that might remind people of Pinochet’s Chile, or General Galtieri’s Argentina. Equally, it could be southern Europe, which was then under the heel of dictators in Greece and Turkey, as well as Portugal and Spain.”
Coming back to Inés de Castro after a decade and a half has been an act of fulfilment for MacMillan. “It’s only now beginning to dawn on me that it was a project worth pursuing, and I actually think that this is its real launch. Sometimes things need to bed down and change before they find their feet.”
Does he feel the same about his second major opera, The Sacrifice, which was premiered in Cardiff by Welsh National Opera in 2007, but which has never been revived, and more astonishingly, has never been staged in Scotland?
“I haven’t had a chance to think about that, but I’d like to bring it back at some stage. I loved working with [director] Katie Mitchell on that, but sometimes it needs a completely new take just to shift even the composer’s opinion about the piece. Maybe that will happen.”
Take note, Scottish Opera.
• Scottish Opera’s production of James MacMillan’s Inés de Castro is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 22 and 24 January, and Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 29 and 31 January, www.scottishopera.org.uk
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