It is fortuitous that Peter Maxwell Davies took his time over his new opera. The idea – a work for students based on multiple stories of student activism – was a good one when he and his librettist, David Pountney, came up with it but, against the backdrop of uprisings across the Arab world, it looks positively inspired.
The commission came from the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Juilliard School in New York. To offer parts for as many students as possible, the creators have devised a scenario that allows a legion of singers and instrumentalists to take part. Make no mistake: Kommilitonen! is an ambitious task for any music academy.
In fact, it is almost three operas in one. Pountney’s libretto touches down at three explosive points in the 20th century: a turning point of race relations in Mississippi in the 1960s; the Weisse Rose resistance movement in Nazi Germany; and a symbolic tale of one young man’s suffering during the cultural revolution in China.
Running these tales simultaneously could have resulted in a confusing mishmash but Pountney has pinpointed the crucial elements of each so cleverly that everything is clear and the juxtapositions strike sparks off each other. Equally, the music works with exemplary theatrical skill; Maxwell Davies has coloured his score with snatches of American roots music, German art song and brassy Chinese marches without ever losing sight of the opera’s unifying goal.
As producer, Pountney is a past master at marshalling an army of performers and has delivered a cinematic epic on a modest budget. The singing was consistently good – Marcus Farnsworth, Aoife Miskelly and Katie Bray stood out as the lead characters in each story – and the Royal Academy of Music Sinfonia under conductor Jane Glover gave its best in Maxwell Davies’s imaginative orchestral writing.
With its swift, narrative focus, Kommilitonen flies straight to its target like a bullet from a campaigner’s gun. Perhaps the conclusion – an all-embracing chorus – is the easy way out when the stories themselves have had such varied (in one case tragic) outcomes. Otherwise, here is proof that Maxwell Davies, who says he never intended to write another opera, still had a serious success inside him.