Listeners' reactions to the opera The Okavango Macbeth by Tom Cunningham with a libretto by novelist Alexander McCall Smith, are likely to depend on the expectations they bring to it. The piece is in fact an opera because it is sung through, but its musical idiom is solidly Broadway. It sticks close to the conventions of late 20th century middle-of-the-road musicals, with predictable harmonic progressions and standard song and chorus forms. The songs are fluently melodic and lyrically mellow and the accompaniments are supportive and unobtrusive. Taken on its own terms, within those parameters, the piece succeeds more fully than many attempts at new popular music theatre. The premise is intriguing; in a band of baboons (one of the few species besides humans in which power is inherited) a story derived from Macbeth unfolds: the duplicitous Lady Macbeth, intended wife for Duncan, goads the weak Macbeth into murdering him so they can marry and assume positions of power. Not surprisingly, the affair ends tragically, and [spoiler alert] Lady Macbeth is eaten by a leopard. An added layer of drama is added by having the baboons being studied by a trio of American primatologists.
The opera's weaknesses are the music's lack of dramatic range -- almost all of it cheerily pretty and in a major key, even Lady Macbeth's encouragement to kill Duncan -- and the libretto's verbal clichés and simplistic, underdeveloped characterizations. The opera was given its premiere in austere circumstances -- in a garage, with piano accompaniment -- in Botswana in 2009. This recording comes from a 2011 production by Edinburgh Studio Opera, directed by Nicholas Ellenbogen, with imaginative orchestrations by Robert McFall. Music director Michael Bawtree leads Mr. McFall's Chamber, an ensemble of nine players, and a very fine cast. The excellent young singers are experienced in opera and handle the vocal lines with ease and panache. The sound is clean and ambient, if a little close. This is a piece that may not hold interest for fans of contemporary opera, but it could appeal to listeners who follow new musicals.