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Bold production brings an English opera to US

Peter Maxwell Davies's ``Taverner'' has had its American premi`ere in a Sarah Caldwell production that was incredibly ambitious in scope, and successful in those ambitions. The opera itself, though written 10 years before Davies's ``The Lighthouse,'' runs light years ahead of the later work in bringing Davies's particular gifts as a composer to bear on interpreting the human condition. It came to the United States last week two and a half years after ``The Lighthouse'' and almost 15 years after its world premi`ere by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London.

The title character of ``Taverner'' is a musician based on a historical character amid events swirling around the quicksand court of Henry VIII. Robert Bolt's play ``A Man for All Seasons'' dealt with the same period but dwelt largely on the men of Henry's court and their ethical dilemmas. ``Taverner'' is a religious nightmare that strains and pulls at fundamental questions of terror and guilt.

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The Opera Company of Boston production took place here on a stark-white, sharply raked stage with the shape and imprint of a cathedral apse. It moved from tones of black-and-white and earthen browns -- presided over by a giant angel of judgment hanging from the ceiling -- to a riot of unsettling color depicting a final moral conflagration.

This journey into fire happens twice -- first consuming the protagonist's art and then all the meaning in his life -- in keeping with the highly cyclical nature of Davies's whole superstructure (wheels upon wheels turn here, constantly bringing us back to the fundamental question of the work). It is testament to both the opera and the production that we take both journeys willingly, anxious to see the outcome that we have already guessed at.

We're also eager to see what new sparks will be thrown off by Miss Caldwell's creative fires, newly re-stoked after ill health and a crisis in the company's finances forced the cancellation of the 1985 season.

In contrast with ``The Lighthouse,'' here we have Davies in a mood to lend far more melodic power to his orchestral backgrounds. The orchestra is used to stir and work the dramatic broth, and his angular, demanding vocal lines are underpinned this time by thickly textured, richly developed music.

In this opera, we hear less of the composer's cerebral tone, the cold stamp that so often makes his music an icy abstraction instead of a moving testament. The piece was written in 1970, at a period when he was allowing emotion and loveliness to peek in here and there; and it profits enormously from the feeling of humanness underneath the music.

The music moves restlessly through a variety of styles, from Tudor church music to pointillistic brass writing, to a polyphonic musical discourse. And it is here that Maxwell Davies seems most resourceful and creative. His intellect is quite evidently at work, weighing the music of his time and the Reformation, and finding some intriguing connections. He hammers these connections out with considerable craft, and makes them serve dramatic purpose.

The music does not occupy center stage in this work, however. Rather, it acts as a motivating force for the play of ideas and tensions inherent in the drama.

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This drama begins with the trial by the Roman Catholic authorities of musician-composer John Taverner for involvement in an underground Lutheran movement.

Taverner's situation and life are used with much poetic license here to provide the uneasy fulcrum for the moral crisis of the times. While Taverner escapes burning at the stake (because a cardinal doesn't want to lose his skills as a composer), he does lose his own integrity and musical genius in a compact with the death that threatens Henry's subjects if they cross him.

This death is personified -- first as court-jester then, in an astonishing metamorphosis, as the death-figure itself, both portrayed with athletic power by baritone Alan Oke. At the hand of this death-character we learn that the crimes of the King are the burden of everyman, and certainly of the artist who, like John Taverner, can no longer serve his muse, once he is made to serve the ends of power.

As Taverner, tenor John Mouslon gave an effective, well-sung portrayal of the transformation from ``a poor musician'' to a willing persecutor of his fellow man. Baritone Raimund Harincx made a convincing transformation as the White Abbot who first prosecutes Taverner, then becomes his victim, taking on moral power as he finds himself turned into a sacrificial lamb. And the various pawns of power -- most notably those played by RoseMarie Freni as Taverner's mistress and James Rensink as Richard Taverner, the father -- were believably caught up in the drama.

Much of what goes on in ``Taverner'' falls into the category of a morality play. Characters are not fleshed out, and relationships between them are not explored. But Maxwell Davies has searched out enough musical invention from the era and provided enough musical momentum to carry us through the proceedings with a feeling of inexorable force.

And he was more than helped here by Caldwell's bold stagecraft, which gave constant detail to the matters at hand, using choir boys and processions and death masks and monumental stage devices to make dramatic points. Carrie Robbins's costumes, David Sharir's scenery and Graham Walne's lighting artfully intensify the nightmare-creation of this production. None of the theatrical values would have mattered much, if we were not drawn into the central tragedy of the work. But, inescapably, that was what happened here.

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