Mary of Egypt
DANIEL LEWIS developed something of a passion for this mystical production about the making of a saint
Some operas cut to the chase. They pick you up, might tell you a little bit about themselves but quickly get down to business before sending you on your way home.
Others play the long game. They sit you down, drop hints, follow you around in the interval before fully revealing themselves.
Mary of Egypt is this second type of opera: it takes some getting used to. However, despite (or due to) its coyness—which made it almost impossible to follow without program notes—this production manages to seduce.
Camilla Seale, in the title role, was truly impressive. There was great clarity and depth to both her singing and acting. In the beginning, you do not doubt Mary’s role as a wayward woman or her religious sincerity by the end. Nick Doig was also accomplished in the role of the holy man who saves her. His direct and intense tone suited the part but his permanent expression of anguish perhaps left something to be desired dramatically.
To the left of the stage was the orchestra which recreated this often repetitive score by John Tavener extremely well. The extended flute solo which opened the show—above the quiet drone which runs almost throughout—was atmospheric. On the whole, the band were not wholly convincing in producing the softer, more gossamer textures but sounded ten times its size in the louder and fuller passages. The chorus, on the right-hand side, added to the outstanding ethereality near the end of the piece as well as the cacophony, although at points it felt as though they could have sung with more power.
The other supporting element was the silent troupe of dancers, almost always on stage, whose mixture of sensual, fluid and angular choreography, underlining the exoticism of the piece, was intensely distracting for all the right reasons. They, in fact, were the main focus in the very final scene in which Mary is actually comatose. In all honesty, their presence alone earns this production another star.
Of course, no review of this particular production would be complete without mention of King’s College Chapel where it was staged. While the bulk of the action took place in front of the organ screen, the directors used the rest of the vast space imaginatively.
Between the tableaux, the interjections of The Voice, sung by Susie Self—whose quasi-call to prayers had an interesting sexless quality—came out of sight from the organ loft. At one point, Mary wandered to the west end to take full advantage of the acoustics. And the lighting which occasionally flared up—representing the sunrise, desert plains, spiritual dawning or all of the above—was truly effective in contributing to the sense of space in this set-less production.
It is not incredibly surprising to learn that this is the first time this opera has been performed in the U.K. There is no real sense of narrative thrust or substance to the characters to stick your teeth into. And it can sometimes feel as though who have been dropped into the middle of a Christian Orthodox service where everyone’s a little bit more into it than you. However, I would urge you to go see it—for its uniqueness, its mystery, its surprising depth and for its setting in this incredible building.
Mary of Egypt is running until 31 October at 7.30p.m. in King’s College Chapel.