Michael Lankester

Gordon Crosse: Purgatory

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Gordon Crosse's 1966 opera Purgatory is based on a 1938 play by Yeats that must be the most Beckettian piece of theater to appear before Beckett's own bleak existential dramas. The grim, stylized story of an Old Man who has murdered his father and now murders a Young Man, his son, inspires little empathy for its characters and makes a cold subject for an opera. Apart from the Old Man's feelings for his mother, the characters in the play seem to have little in the way of human emotions, and it ends with the Old Man dispassionately wiping his son's blood from his knife. Crosse for the most part maintains a chilly objectivity, but he softens the finale, creating an inappropriate illusion of resolution by ending the opera with music of elegiac loveliness, coming to rest on a melancholy major chord. Stylistically, his music is similar to Britten's, but more dissonant and disjunct. He doesn't have Britten's gift for creating music that penetratingly illuminates the drama on-stage or for memorable melody. One of Crosse's most effective decisions is to use a wordless offstage chorus that ominously and atmospherically murmurs. In this 1975 recording, tenor Peter Bodenham and baritone Glenville Hargreaves sing admirably and dramatically, but because of the nature of the story, face an uphill struggle in creating believable or sympathetic characters. The Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Northern College of Music, led by Michael Lankester, perform with intensity. The opera is unlikely to inspire broad affection, but for the fan of mid-century British opera, it's valuable to hear this work by one of the most important British composers of the period.

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