Opera Scotland

Friend of the People

Music

David Horne (born Tillicoultry, 12 December 1970)

Text

Robert Maclennan

Source

Historic a l e v e n t s

 

Premières

First Performance: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 6 November 1999.

First performance in UK: As above.

First performance in Scotland: As above.

Scottish Opera première: As above.

 

Background

Friend of the People is a potentially interesting opera, with an intriguing storyline, based on an important episode in the history of Britain during the time of the French Revolution, when Government was worried, almost paranoid, about the threat of revolution spreading across the channel. Any pressure for reform was therefore ruthlessly suppressed. While Thomas Muir (1765-99) is shown to be a moderating influence on some of his more radical associates, he was treated with particular severity, being transported to Australia, and having his health ruined before escaping to France, where he died young. He inevitably comes across as a naïve idealist, taken in by Napoleon in the way that the Fabians would be fooled by Stalin over a century later.

David Horne had a prodigiously successful early career, winning the BBC Young Musician title at the age of 18 with an astonishingly mature performance of the third Rachmaninov piano concerto. Even then his interest was principally in composition - he went to study in the USA, and soon took to an academic life at Harvard. His music for Friend is beautifully crafted, nearly always interesting, and carefully scaled to permit clear projection of words. Unfortunately, the text provided by a prominent politician was historically accurate to a fault, consisting of lots of short scenes, many of marginal relevance to the main event, and of minimal dramatic or literary merit – indeed the third act adds nothing of interest to what has gone before. This really is a great shame, since there is plenty of good musical material in the opera that needs to be rescued.

 

Main Characters

Thomas Muir, an advocate (baritone)

Professor Millar, one of the ‘Friends of the People’ (bass)

Rev James Lapslie, a friend of the Muirs (tenor)

Anna Barbauld, a Whig lady (soprano)

Robert Dundas, Lord Advocate (baritone)

Lord Braxfield, a Judge (bass)

 

Plot Summary

The action is framed by scenes set in Paris in 1798, where Thomas Muir, in favour of a Napoleonic invasion of Britain, now lives in exile. He tells his story to the child of an American diplomat, and at the end he dies. Most of the action follows events in 1792. His mentor, Professor Millar, persuades Muir to make contact with fellow reformers among the Whigs in London. At Mrs Barbauld’s Hampstead residence, he meets with Whigs and with Talleyrand, over from France. His mother worries that he is heading for trouble with the Government. It becomes clear that he is a reformer, but some of his associates are revolutionaries. His old family friend Lapslie and a maidservant, whose attentions he has spurned, both inform against him. He travels to France to plead for the life of Louis XVI, knowing his execution would set back the reformers’ cause, but arriving home too late for his trial on a charge of sedition, finds he has been outlawed and struck off.  His re-arranged trial is perfunctory, and found guilty, he is sentenced to transportation to Australia. He escapes from there with the help of an American captain and attempts to make his way to America. However in his efforts to avoid British blockades he is imprisoned in Cuba by unsympathetic Spanish authorities. He is shipped to Spain, but is then wounded during a battle when the Spanish ship attempts to run the British blockade. He at last reaches Paris, but his health is broken, and he dies soon afterwards.

The Cast

'Camillus'
 
'Ceres'
 
'Cicero'
 
Anna Barbauld
 a Whig lady of letters
Annie Fisher
 Mrs Muir's maid, in love with Thomas
Captain Campbell, RN
 of HMS Surprise
Captain Dorr
 of the American merchantman Otter
Captain Fonnegra
 of the Spanish frigate Ninfa
Charles Grey
 a Whig MP
Charles Talleyrand
 a French diplomat
Colonel Dalrymple
 of the Friends
Count of Santa Clara
 Spanish Captain General
Don Pedro
 aide to the Count
First Crewman
 
James Grant
 a transported convict
John James Appleton
 son of the American Consul, aged 12
John Millar Jr
 of the Friends, the professor's son
Jury Foreman
 
Lieutenant Page, RN
 of HMS Surprise
Lord Braxfield
 Lord Justice Clerk
Margaret Muir
 mother of Thomas Muir
Marianne 'La France'
 
Mayor of Bordeaux
 
Professor Millar
 of the Friends
Rev James Lapslie
 Minister of Campsie
Robert Dundas
 Lord Advocate
Robert Forsyth
 of the Friends
Second Crewman
 
Thomas Muir
 an advocate

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