I was going to start with that old OperaWatch standby: “It’s been a quiet time here at OW offices.”
However, since those drunks from Hamiltonic moved in down the corridor at Northern Soul Towers, it’s been anything but. As the freebie crates of gin are wheeled in every day, the party usually starts with that breakfast drink of professionals, the Bloody Mary. When our cordial invitation to review Mary’s Hand arrived, we jumped at the chance to escape the daily debauchery. By coincidence, Mary’s Hand is the operatic retelling of the tragic life of Queen Mary Tudor, the original Bloody Mary.
The opera was to be performed in Lancaster’s historic Priory Church. Situated at the top of the hill, behind the castle and overlooking the Lune Estuary, it has borne witness to the burning of the Pendle witches, the invasion of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the trial of the Birmingham Six. What better venue to explore the extraordinary times of Mary I? Daughter to Henry and Catherine of Aragon, Mary was a zealous catholic who became Queen of England and Spain and, it could be argued, the first remainer. Henry VIII and his six wives led to the first ever Brexit by forming the Church of England and leaving the Holy See of Rome. Mary was a staunch remainer to the point of having the heir to a Protestant throne and early ERG member, Lady Jane Gray, executed. Answers on a postcard those of you who would like to see that re-enacted with Rees-Mogg as Lady Jane. Mary also had 280 other protestants/Brexiteers burnt at the stake, hence the nomenclature ‘Bloody’.
With libretto and direction by Di Sherlock and music by Martin Bussey, Mary’s Hand tells the dramatic, and often forgotten, life of Mary through a series of cards that dictate the narrative of the play by playing out the “hand dealt by Birth, Fate and History”. Each card represents a character important to Mary, so the King and Queen of Hearts are Henry and Catherine, down to old ‘Wolfhall’ himself, Thomas Cromwell as the jack of clubs. It is an engaging tale told in a single act by mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin as Mary. It is a difficult role to perform as McCaldin has to hold the audience for over an hour with no other props than the cards she is dealt. She wasn’t helped by the dodgy physics of the magnets used to pin the cards to a somewhat shaky structure that looked improvised to the point of collapse – which it dutifully did. It was a testament to McCaldin’s skill, quick-thinking and good humour to make light of it with some knowing smiles to the audience. In fact, her skill shone through all evening with a beautifully nuanced performance. She was seductive, coquettish, childish, hurt, angry, mournful and majestic in turns with a voice to match each mood. Her mezzo-soprano range held her emotions with a power to carry through the airy acoustics of the Priory, and she was supported by a talented and energetic orchestra of trumpet, oboe/cor anglais and fiery cello.
An added bonus was the authentic design of her dress by Andie Scott and Sophie Meyer who were inspired by Hans Eworth’s 1553 portrait of Mary. As the performance proceeded and at each landmark in her life, Mary disrobed a part of her elaborate costume in a kind of enticing Tudor striptease that revealed her increasing fragility. As history took its toll, Mary stripped down to her undergarments as her death approached. The opera ended with Mary, disrobed of her majesty and shrouded in white, slowly exiting down the aisle to the sound of a lone trumpet. It was a moving performance in an historic setting, beautiful, dramatic and unique.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent