Warning – this is not an opera for the faint hearted. Composer James MacMillan has revised the work since its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 1996 but I don’t know if it has been toned down at all in terms of shock value as it still covers some pretty jaw-dropping and at times even stomach churning material. The story is based on historical events and playwright Jo Clifford has drawn on the original dramatization by Ferreira to produce her own play of the same name as well as the libretto for this opera.
Ines is the Spanish mistress of Pedro, the Portugese Crown Prince, and war has broken out between the two countries. Pacheco, the King’s advisor, counsels him to have Ines and her sons killed as her presence at court poses a potential threat to Portugal’s security and the King’s own position. The King reluctantly agrees to the plan and, to get Pedro out of the way while the deed is done, he sends him to what seems certain to be death in battle. Pacheco is a brutal psychopath who it turns out was himself brutalised by witnessing the dreadful torture of his friends and family when he was a young boy. His brutality is paid back in spades when he is tortured and killed on the orders of Pedro who miraculously returns unscathed from battle and goes mad on finding his beloved Ines has been killed. I will spare you the gory details of the actual torture but it is outlined to the audience in quite graphic fashion. Yes, we have everything here – passion, murder, infanticide, torture and it all culminates with Pedro exhuming Ines’ corpse and forcing his subjects to pay homage to her at a feast.
I’ve never been a huge fan of modern classical music and opera as I find a lot of it to be too discordant and strident. Well, there is plenty of that here but I have to say I absolutely loved this production and just sat back open mouthed and enjoyed the ride. The large chorus is used to great effect throughout and there are some fine performances from the soloists, particularly from Stephanie Corley as Ines and Susannah Glanville as Bianca, Pedro’s spurned wife. The set is stark but visually stunning with vivid reds and blacks and a backdrop reflecting the bloody and unrelentingly miserable series of events. But the highlight is the music and the excellent Scottish Opera orchestra, conducted by MacMillan himself, produces a glorious wall of sound which perfectly complements the action.
Not to everyone’s taste but it was certainly a different experience and a complete contrast to the safer, better known opera classics that usually make up the repertoire.