Michael Tanner

Stirred into action

Kommilitonen! is Peter Maxwell Davies’s new opera, to a text by David Pountney, who also directs the première production at the Royal Academy of Music.

Kommilitonen! is Peter Maxwell Davies’s new opera, to a text by David Pountney, who also directs the première production at the Royal Academy of Music.

Kommilitonen! is Peter Maxwell Davies’s new opera, to a text by David Pountney, who also directs the première production at the Royal Academy of Music. It makes a stirring, invigorating evening, though at the end it isn’t clear which direction it is pointing in, while the whole mode of the work makes you feel that it must be pointing somewhere.

The title means ‘Fellow Students’, and there are three separate strands, which become interwoven towards the end. One is of the black American student James Meredith, who insisted on attending the University of Mississippi in 1962, and had to have massive military protection. The second is of the Weisse Rose, a student protest group in Munich who rebelled against the Nazis in 1942, and were guillotined in 1943. The third is of students in Mao’s China, who were forced to denounce their parents, and one of whom becomes a professor of history but refuses to admit what happened — that shows, says Pountney in his note, that student activists aren’t always to be sympathised with.

Maxwell Davies has written music of different styles for each thread, and they combine in a massive finale, to exhilarating effect. What is perhaps the most surprising thing about all the styles is how conservative they are, with none of the rebarbativeness that we still associate with this composer. That contributes to the sense that we are witnessing the resurrection of a forgotten German opera written in 1932 — with dates adjusted, naturally.

Yet the piece undoubtedly works, showing that with enough conviction and enthusiasm and skill what are widely regarded as outmoded idioms can, occasionally, be regenerated.

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