First published in the Guardian on 23 January, 2015
James MacMillan’s first full-scale opera is harrowing: almost unremittingly, sometimes salaciously. Its heroine, Inés, is Spanish mistress to the Portuguese prince Pedro; when the countries go to war, she is branded politically dangerous and executed. Pedro seizes power and forces his citizens to play out macabre fantasies at gunpoint. There’s no missing the grim narrative in this opera. Both text and music signpost every gory twist.
MacMillan’s score simmers, shrieks and keens, effective at summoning claustrophobia and fear. Jo Clifford’s unflinching libretto contains graphic depictions of sexual violence, infanticide and torture. The whole thing is laced with a dark sensuality that is genuinely discomfiting, but the emotional pummelling had the converse effect of leaving me cold. By the time the heads of Inés’s children arrive in a suitcase — just after we’ve heard a detailed account of marital rape — my shock factor had desensitised to numb.
When the opera premiered at the 1996 Edinburgh International Festival it was criticised for being musically and dramatically heavy-handed. MacMillan has revised the work for Scottish Opera’s new production, which he conducts himself, with streamlined dramatic pacing and improved voice-settings. Some terrific sounds come out of the pit, a reminder of the sensational imagination of MacMillan’s early works. Scottish Opera’s orchestra hasn’t sounded this incisive for a long while.
Olivia Fuch’s production is good. Updated to the 20th century — take your pick of brutal regimes; Pinochet’s Chile is suggested in the programme book — it tells the story straight using stark sets and bold lighting. The chorus and cast are strong, too. Stephanie Corley is magnetic as a dignified, wilfully sensuality Inés; Susannah Glanville balances ice, hurt and cruelty as Pedro’s jilted wife Bianca; Peter Wedd’s Pedro is credibly ardent, spoilt and dangerous. Altogether it isn’t an easy watch, but it isn’t supposed to be.