Diktat is a tyrannical ruler unleashing chaos on the planet. But, as a band of unlikely heroes forms, launching a battle of biblical proportions, can a shattered world heal in time?
Masque of Might is the world premiere of a witty and satirical new opera which sees Sir David Pountney skilfully assemble Henry Purcell’s music to create a fantastical and thoroughly modern tale of power, corruption and the gathering climate crisis. Henry Purcell is arguably England’s finest composer of music for the stage before Benjamin Britten, yet he wrote only one opera, Dido and Aeneas. Masterpiece though that undoubtedly is, much of Purcell’s greatest dramatic music is to be found in the ‘semi-operas’, masques and other entertainments that were popular in his time, such as The Fairy Queen. Masque of Might showcases Purcell’s most beautiful, as well as rarely heard, music – including the spellbinding ‘O let me weep‘ from The Fairy Queen, the virtuosic ‘Arise ye subterranean winds‘ from The Tempest and the epic chorus ‘Soul of the world‘ from Ode for St Cecilia’s Day. Harry Bicket conducts the chorus and orchestra of Opera North.
Nebulous / Activist / Wolf
Andri Björn Róbertsson
Elena / Witch
Tousel Blond / Fox
Scrofulous / Toady / Seer / Saul
Sceptic / Samuel
Rose Ellen Lewis
Orchestra of Opera North
Chorus of Opera North
Musical numbers edited by
assembled and adapted by
A scene of magic incantation. Two powerful beings, Nebulous and Elena, look down on the misguided earth where a terrible ruler, Diktat, is coming into being. They call on gods and spirits to shroud the earth in darkness. On earth, two sycophants, Tousel Blond and Ginger Strumpet, honour the new ruler.
The tyrant Diktat reviews a parade of prisoners who have been arrested for climate activism. Nebulous and Scrofulous approach and warn Diktat not to ignore the suffering of the planet. Nebulous gives a graphic account of the polluted state of the earth. Angered, Diktat throws them into prison.
The prisoners sing of their despair and pray for an end to their torment, before Nebulous is executed. Elena laments his death.
Diktat kills a wild boar in a ridiculous feat of machismo, and is lauded as a hero. Elena appears, still mourning the loss of Nebulous, and under duress joins
Sceptic has persuaded Strumpet and Tousel to change sides. They bemoan the circle of empty flattery and lies which surround Diktat and his favoured supporters. Sceptic and Activist meet as conspirators. Sceptic calls for the winds to arise, the earth to shake, and the forces of nature to rise up against Diktat.
Diktat is suffering nightmares. In a state of confusion, he meets a Wolf and a Fox, who tell him that the trees are pleading for the cries of nature to be heard. Diktat claims that their talk of climate doom is a hoax. Sceptic, Activist and Elena invoke the dead to rise and hear the fall of the melting glaciers and see the earth tremble.
Increasingly desperate, Diktat seeks to know the future. He meets a Seer who warns him that all people, even kings, must submit to their destiny. Seer, Sceptic and Elena reveal to Diktat a vision in the form of a play, in which King Saul visits the fortune-telling Witch of Endor and learns that he will lose his kingdom.
Crushed by the vision, Diktat calls on God for mercy. As his power vanishes, he is destroyed, and Elena is revealed as the Queen of the Night. Light returns and the earth begins to heal.
Behind the Masque
Sir David Pountney
Purcell came very early to me. As a chorister at St. John’s Cambridge ‘Jehova quam multi sunt’ was a perennial favourite and we were thrilled by the evenings when George Guest brought in some string players to accompany Purcell’s verse anthems. These were very special occasions. And then since no management had the wit to invite me to direct Purcell, I finally managed to engage myself to direct The Fairy Queen at English National Opera. That was very directly the genesis of this evening’s ‘Masque’.
The Fairy Queen is like the other Purcell Masques or theatrical entertainments in that it is much more like a variety show than an opera. Dance, spectacle and a random disregard for consistent narrative are the hallmarks of these charmingly unfocussed pieces, which makes it difficult for an impatient modern audience to figure out what exactly they are watching. The Fairy Queen appears to have a spurious link to dramatic credibility via its connection to Shakespeare, but of course this link is not consistently followed through. Originally it had a vast amount of very tedious Dryden text. So faced with the choice of tedious Dryden or a mash-up of Shakespeare, I decided to do The Fairy Queen with absolutely no spoken text and let the bizarre juxtaposition of highly diverse Purcell numbers speak for itself. Curiously enough, the result was really rather successful.
But the indisputable fact is that in the face of the zany dramatic chaos of the Masque format, Purcell’s music, whether witty, colourful, ceremonial, reflective or exuberant, is sublime. So after my relatively convincing Fairy Queen performance I thought, why not make a ‘new’ Purcell Masque – matching the vast reservoir of music he composed with a slightly more coherent dramatic form. Not an Opera, still a Masque, with dancing, entertainment and ceremony, but with a more engaging narrative line. And just at that moment a complete edition of all Purcell’s music came up for sale and I bought it – 40 volumes of it!
Of course, in the following years I never had the time to do the vast amount of detailed work to create this new Masque – until all of a sudden Covid came along. My Ring cycle in Chicago was aborted two weeks before it was complete, but I could now stay at home in Penarth and piece together some Purcell. Chandos Records were very generous and sent me a complete set of Purcell discs, so off I went, working my way through some 400+ tracks while my partner went quietly mad in the next room!
Initially I was in search of a subject, since I came to that side of the project with an open mind. I had thought perhaps this was going to be a comedy, possibly about a certain Royal Family, which might reflect Purcell’s Carolingian heritage. But then I began, with total astonishment, to come across texts of such incredibly apocalyptic force that it seemed that Purcell had been addressing the catastrophe of climate change already back in the 1600s:
‘Beware O cursed land,
Which will not see the precipice where thou dost stand,
Though thou stand just upon the brink,
Thou of this poison’d bowl the bitter dregs shall drink.
The rotting corps shall so infect the aire;
Beget such Plagues, and putrid Venomes there,
That by thine own Dead shall be slain,
All thy few Living that remain.’
Or this, as an example of the minimal tweaking required to adjust the text to a more contemporary theme:
‘Hark! From aloft the melting glacier (originally ‘frozen region’) falls
With noise so loud it deafs the ocean’s roar.
Alarmed, amazed, the clatt’ring shards (originally ‘orbs’) come down.’
So I had clearly found my subject, or I should rather say my subject had found me. It was easy then to imagine a villainous ruler as the champion of climate scepticism, and initially he was called Tunip which crossword solvers will instantly identify as an anagram of Putin. But somehow along the way Putin stopped being a subject for comedy, so the evil ruler became Diktat and his nemesis was a powerful female spirit called Elena. It was then easy to create a cast of supporting characters, either sceptics or sycophants, who alternatively supported or conspired against the ruler who would be driven out in a blaze of sunlit Purcellian glory at the end. This was already enough of a narrative line for a Masque.
Then it was ‘simply’ a matter of selecting the musical numbers, which was difficult only in the sense that one is very spoilt for choice, especially as I allowed my search to range over the entire Purcellian output including sacred music. I included some famous items to help the audience feel at home, like the wonderful Plaint from The Fairy Queen or the exuberant ‘Sound the trumpet’, but I was mainly interested in presenting music which is not normally heard, of which there is a prodigious quantity. The important thing was that as well as achieving a proper balance of fast/slow/comic/serious/high voice/low voice and including opportunities for dance, the selection assiduously followed the principle of collage – creating a narrative by the law of zany juxtaposition. And then of course I had to slim down the number of different singers required. This involved a minimal amount of tweaking, mainly transposing certain numbers into different keys, and I was very fortunate that Harry Bickett agreed to come on board to make sure I wasn’t making any musical errors. I also tweaked the text here and there – not as much as you might expect. In fact, most of the changes are minimal enough that I now find it hard to remember which bits are ‘tweaked’ and which original. For instance, Elena sings a powerful political speech towards the end:
‘The earth trembled, and Heav’n’s clos’d eye
Was loath to see the glorious planet die.’
This was originally:
‘The earth trembled, and Heav’n’s clos’d eye
Was loth to see the Lord of Glory die.’
And in a very few instances I rewrote the text of a whole number. Diktat, for instance, acquires a ‘climate sceptic’ aria which is not very close at all to the original:
‘This talk of doom is all a hoax,
The “climate” one of fashion’s jokes.
A hoax, a trick, a bare-faced lie,
False prophecies we stout defy.’
We are addressing a highly serious and important topic in Masque of Might, and Purcell definitely rises to the occasion with some astonishingly heartfelt music full of his trademark plangent chromatic harmonies. But it being a Masque also makes it important that we balance this with the charm, wit and gaiety that is such an intrinsic part of his style. I very much hope we can offer the audience a serious evening delivered with a twinkle, and of course a sumptuous banquet of less familiar Purcell music.