The hero of the opera is a ‘Dummy’, a silent character who is indoctrinated by his family, figures of authority and by the media (in the form of a rock group and a series of increasingly threatening television commercials). When the ‘Dummy’ fails to respond to the ideology, he is hospitalised in order to try to convert this potential ‘enemy of the people’ into a ‘pillar of the community’. After his brain, heart and genitals have been replaced, the ‘cured’ patient rises from the table and inflates to the full height of the theatre, obliterating the stage like a colossus. The opera’s climax is a double resurrection: the surgery has produced a monster, ready to do the bidding of those who created him, but also capable of turning on them. As he disappears above the stage, a tableau vivant depicts the Antichrist bursting forth from the tomb. He gives his curse, revealing a death’s-head with laser eyes as all is consumed in an infernal, apocalyptic light.
Resurrection, which might as well be called a musical as an opera, is one of the fiercest works of social criticism ever to come from the pen of a classical composer. Resurrection has little in the way of conventional narrative. A nameless family mouths ‘traditional’ values but practices only hypocrisy. The son, the opera's hero, is a dummy who never once sings or moves; he is a nonconformist who must be made to fit into a puritanical society.
Four Surgeons devise an elaborate series of operations to remedy the son’s supposed defects. The first dissects his brain, seeking to rectify his moral and intellectual faults; a second examines his heart, correcting his emotional and religious failings, whilst a third adjusts his ‘sexual proclivities’ by removing his testicles. But the surgery goes awry, and the patient is resurrected as the Antichrist, announcing the impending apocalypse. Peter Maxwell Davies describes the transformation he has in mind during the metamorphosis of the patient into the Antichrist: ‘Despite the lack of testes, which the Surgeons removed, the Patient's penis slowly becomes erect - a huge submachine gun, directed over the audience.’
Such savage parody could easily turn preachy and heavy-handed, but Maxwell Davies is an expert in how to handle such material with an irreverent, comic touch. The libretto is witty, ingenious and viciously anticlerical. He is as scandalous musically. Resurrection is a triumph of post-modern eclecticism, filled with gleefully colliding historical styles. Vocal soloists, dancers, a Rock Band with its own Rock singer, a Salvation Army Band and a small orchestra are all called on to perform music that ranges from angular atonality to parodies of Bachian chorales, from Edwardian ballads to 1960's rock. Maxwell Davies has turned these diverse idioms to the service of hugely compelling theatre.
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Resurrection was conceived when I was a post-graduate student at Princeton University in 1963. Although the text was not complete until 1983 and the music until 1987, in all essentials the work remained true to the initial conception - the pressure of society upon the individual to 'conform' had become even more intense meanwhile.
The central character, the Hero, never moving, never making a sound, is presented as an effigy, set upon by close relatives, and by worthy pillars of society, until, at the end of the Prologue, his head quite literally explodes. After a short instrumental transition, the Hero is brought to hospital and anaesthetized, investigated and operated upon by a surgical team, who conjure up for us and deal with:
his intellectual life/political history (brain)
his emotional/religious history (heart)
his sexual proclivities (genitals).
At the end, 'cured' after grotesquely pantomime surgery, the Hero resurrects, to the rock group's rendition of the Song of the New Resurrection.
Perhaps the prime mover is the Cat - which, at the start, is a 'normal' domestic animal, but which, in the course of its set of alchemical dances interspersing the action of the Prologue (its voice provided by the vocalist of the rock group), slowly becomes a Dragon, possibly in control of the whole train of events through the opera. This Dragon reappears, triumphant, in apotheosis, at the final Resurrection.
The action is interrupted and commented upon throughout by television commercials; it is as if a very large and dominant television set were left playing, and intermittently grabs our attention. Based on the Apocalypse of St. John, and more specifically Dürer's woodcuts of the same, the television commercials are at first vocally and musically quite distinct from the main action, but as the sub-plot thickens and develops, a stylistic metamorphosis indicates the mingling, even the interchange, of advert and action, of fantasy and what stands for reality.
However, the story line is not in any way 'realistic' - characters and situations develop and change tangentially - the pivot upon which these transformations swing can be an image, a word, a gesture, or even a musical point.
The words have as many styles and references as the music - often parodistic, as in the overblown alchemical songs of the Cat, or when echoing political rhetoric in the investigation into the Hero's brain, or in the doggerel of the born-again Christian rally, with the appearance of Antichrist at its climax. Sometimes, under the guise of a 'set' literary form, something is communicated beyond the natural bounds of that form - as in the Young Brother's Nursery Rhyme, (apart from its culmination in an Apocalypse commercial where the Paschal Lamb becomes a pig in a bacon advert), in which its culinary subtext and the rhyming slang convey the history of the delinquency of Brother's toy pig - i.e. of a part of the Hero's downward spiral to the tripartite 'harrowing of hell' at the hands of the surgeons.
These tensions between both literary and musical contents, and their forms and styles, capitalize on tensions inherent in the means of communication of people whose verbal education has by no means compensated for the disappearance of the traditional poetry and wisdom of communities. Thought occurs in an 'instant' ready-made visual and aural imagery, and communication is effected largely through hand-me-down slogans with a restricted vocabulary, much of which is derived from television and the mass circulation newspapers. What is meant is often beyond the means available for its expression, giving rise to the tensions referred to above, but sometimes, also, to an unintentional and spontaneous kind of poetry - bathetic, funny, or even surrealist. It was felt that this sort of usage, with its violence to language, its rhymes and rhythms stemming from popular entertainment (I have taken as models many styles, from music-hall through the musical to pop songs), with a non-linear, sometimes apparently aberrant logic, was most appropriate for a masque of this kind.
The inclusion of the rock group (for the Cat/Dragon numbers) and the electronic vocal quartet, as well as, on occasion, of pre-made electronic sound tape and of video (for the adverts) underlines the non-linear verbal/musical logic, and the often breathless stylistic switchback - it is as if the music and the drama wear many carnival masks, among which it were as enthymematical to evince which are revelatory, which carefully deceptive, and what any underlying reality could be.
The original seed - the kernel - of the opera lies in these verses from St. Luke:
'The unclean spirit, when he is gone out of the man, passeth through waterless places, seeking rest and finding none, he saith, I will turn back into my house whence I came out. And when he is come, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in, and dwell there, and the last state of that man becometh worse that the first.'
with this rider, from Matthew:
'There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.'
There are four principal plainsongs, carefully and strategically employed throughout - Lectentur Caeli and Puer Natus (Nativity), Herodes iratus occidit (Massacre of the Innocents) and Victimae Paschali (Resurrection) - upon each of which, as well as quasi-serial 'sets' huge transformation systems and magic square are built, hopefully lending unifying rhythmic, motivic, thematic and even harmonic elements to the disparate modus operandi.