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Stuart MacRae

Publisher: Novello & Co

The Assassin Tree (2006)
Co-commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Opera House with support from the Morton Charitable Trust
Text Writer
Libretto by Simon Armitage based on a story from James George Frazer's The Golden Bough
Novello & Co Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Sub Category
Chamber Opera
Year Composed
1 Hour 3 Minutes
Soprano, 2 Tenors, Bass Baritone
Programme Note
Stuart MacRae The Assassin Tree (2006)

Diana – soprano
Priest – Bass baritone
Slave – Tenor
Youth - Tenor


The story of The Assassin Tree is taken from the first section of James George Frazer’s classic study in magic and religion, The Golden Bough. According to the legend, Diana’s sacred grove is stalked by a tragic and lonely king or priest. Anyone who murders the priest will inherit the role, and slaves can win their freedom by stealing a leaf from Diana’s tree. The priest is a haunted and weary figure, constantly looking over his shoulder, never able to sleep. His duty to his goddess has turned from passionate devotion to exhausted obligation. His assassination by a stronger, younger and more virile man seems inevitable, but for the pretender who takes his crown, ambition has its price. One swing of the sword transforms the successor into a hunted man.

In this opera, Diana is a representation of nature itself. She must be revered and respected, protected and nourished. The life of every mortal depends on her survival. But to survive and be fertile she must also be loved, and if her loyal priest seems incapable of meeting her needs, then new suitors are never far away, watching from the woods, waiting to strike. And within this mythological setting, a human drama is about to unfold. Just as Diana’s roots extend deep into the ground, the priest is also part of a family tree whose branches and limbs are not always visible, and who bloodline is part of the eternal cycle of death and renewal.

© 2006 Simon Armitage

Score preview:

Vocal score

Stuart MacRae's music was crafted with great dedication and skill. It was sensitive to every possible nuance of the words, beautifully written for the four singers, expertly scored for the 16-piece orchestra...
David Johnson, Tempo,01/01/2007
At last, a thoroughly successful new Scottish opera. Not that Stuart MacRae’s The Assassin Tree is an opera in the normal sense: it’s more a piece of music theatre, recalling Britten’s church parables and some of the works of Maxwell Davies. […] MacRae sets this many-layered, psychological drama in a continuous recitative or parlando, the instruments providing a caressing or hectic commentary. The style is doggedly atonal but authentic and lucid, coming from a vivid aural imagination. It seems that the composer’s early, rather gentle manner has been superseded by a high seriousness.
Raymond Monelle, The Independent,04/09/2006
Stuart MacRae’s new opera, The Assassin Tree, is this year’s headline new music event at the international festival, an ambitious collaboration from MacRae, poet Simon Armitage and directors Emio Greco and Pieter C Scholten. […] Scored for 15-piece ensemble, the music has all the intensity and focus of MacRae’s recent work, with its ritualistic power and elemental energy, especially in the dissonant fanfare of the opening.
Tom Service, The Guardian,28/08/2006
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