Based on Victorian bestseller The History of Margaret Catchpole, ‘Margaret Catchpole’, the opera, is the story of a Suffolk servant girl who steals a horse to join her lover in London. In the 18th century when this true story played out, horse-stealing was a capital offence.
Stephen Dodgson’s opera was a slow burner during his lifetime. It was performed in local venues in Suffolk and the composer had died by the time it was thrust into the limelight at premier concert space, Snape Maltings in July 2019. He would have been proud, for it was his dying wish that his work be given a proper airing.
Naxos made a recording of the opera at Snape both in honour of the composer (1924-2013) and Margaret Catchpole who had died two hundred years before.
I was certainly intrigued by the story and was looking forward to hearing this rarely performed work.
On the recording, Dodgson’s music and Ronald Fletcher’s libretto capture the beautiful Suffolk scape of misty marshes, shingle beaches and big skies. Oh Harvest Moon, sung by Margaret in the opening scene is a beautiful evocation of the moon-lit fields ready for reaping.
The score is gorgeously fluid, mysterious and mesmeric at times. In the sleeve notes we are told that Dodgson didn’t use key signatures, which probably explains why his musical writing comes through as unfettered and new.
Conductor, Julian Perkins, does a superb job with Chamber Orchestra, Perpetuo. The musical Interludes between the scenes, were not only a delight but moved the story forward in an interesting way. Brass, woodwind, flute, strings and harp, were each given their moments to shine. Each instrument had a story to tell it seemed; the harp evoked the mysteries of nature, the horn suggested remoteness, the flute and bassoon were mischievous, strings, lyrical and intimate. In truth, the instruments were used in many inventive ways. What has stayed in my memory is the repeated and dramatic plucking of the harp towards the end of the judge’s sentencing at Margaret’s trial, where the harp sounded like a deathly bell toll or pounding heartbeat.
The singers on the recording are wonderful interpreters of this highly textured score. Made up of a cast of fifteen they constitute an impressive line-up. Dodgson writes well for them and the music contributes much to their characterisation. It’s not only about the voice but the delivery. Much attention is paid to speech patterns and rhythm. When smuggler Bluff, sings What a fuss, his blunt and brusque manner sums up his disagreeable character. In contrast, Margaret’s beloved, Laud (Bluff’s sidekick) is unpredictable, sometimes wooing her with smooth honeyed words or passionately demanding in I will have her with me. On rare occasions, when he comes out of prison for instance, does Laud’s delivery and tone become more sympathetic as he realises what sacrifices Margaret has made for him.
Margaret’s character is interesting and contradictory. When she sings Oh distant moon in the final scene of the opera, she is supposedly embarking on a new life with long-suffering paramour Barry in Australia. The moon brings back memories of her Suffolk homeland and Laud and doubt seems to be setting in – at least for a moment.
Australian soprano, Kate Howden, really brings her youth and emotional intelligence to the role of Margaret. I was impressed by her clean high notes and how she engaged fully with the role. She is definitely one to watch for 2021.
It’s a long time since I have been so gripped by an opera narrative and so involved in all its characters and that is due to the cohesiveness of the piece. But the biggest surprise to me was the wonderful score.
Naxos has produced a marvellous recording and the sleeve notes are excellent.
Highly recommended – this opera will appeal to a wide audience.
Margaret Catchpole: Two Worlds Apart (Chamber Opera in Four Acts) is released by Naxos on 29th January 2021