The world premiere recording of Stephen Dodgson’s chamber opera Margaret Catchpole: Two Worlds Apart is due to be released by classical music record label Naxos on 29 January 2021, almost eight years after the composer’s death.

Margaret Catchpole is a four-act chamber opera which premiered more than 40 years ago in 1979. It tells the story of Suffolk heroine, criminal and chronicler Margaret Catchpole. It was inspired by Richard Cobbold’s best-selling novel The History of Margaret Catchpole, the embellished tale of the titular heroine, who was employed by Cobbold’s mother as an under-nurse and cook in 1793. The libretto was written by well-known East Anglian writer and local historian Ronald Fletcher (1921-1992).

The opera follows Margaret, who has fallen for sailor and smuggler William Laud. She steals a horse from the Cobbold family in order to ride to her lover in London. Despite pleas from Mrs Cobbold attesting to her excellent character in court, Margaret is convicted for what was then a capital crime. She manages to escape from Ipswich jail before being re-captured and transported to the penal colony in Australia.

Dodgson died in 2013. His wife Jane Clark Dodgson went on to set up the Stephen Dodgson Charitable Trust to encourage performances and recordings of the composer’s work.

This recording was made during a performance of the work and in subsequent recording sessions at the Britten Studios, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, in 2019, fulfilling the composer’s wish to revisit the work. Conductor Julian Perkins frequently collaborated with Stephen on his music and here conducts Perpetuo, a collective of musicians founded by oboist James Turnbull.

“This project has been one of the highlights of my musical career to date,” Perkins commented. “The opera’s roller-coaster of human emotions, as evinced in the febrile nervousness of Will Laud and the heart-breaking vulnerability of Margaret Catchpole’s love for him, magnify our own life experiences and attest to the uplifting qualities of Stephen’s wondrous music.”

Alongside the likes of bass-baritone Matthew Brook and tenor Richard Edgar-Wilson, the cast includes a number of young singers in leading roles, reflecting Stephen’s love of working with and supporting up-and-coming artists throughout his career. Australian mezzo-soprano Kate Howden sings the title role. She studied with the late mezzo-soprano Ameral Gunson, who was the original Margaret Catchpole in 1979.

Edgar-Wilson, who plays the role of Crusoe, explains: “Stephen’s music is tonal, though it can be ambiguously so – unusually, he uses no key signatures at all to anchor the music but lets it flow organically. Much of Dodgson’s vocal writing is narrative with one note to each word, the more lyrical outpourings reserved for phrases that contain words carrying the greatest emotional weight. Yet each role is blessed with music that subtly fleshes out the character.”

Future plans from the Stephen Dodgson Charitable Trust include a performance of Margaret Catchpole on 1 February 2021 at St Gabriel’s Pimlico, in London, as well as the recording of solo voice songs by Dodgson with Ailish Tynan, James Gilchrist, Roderick Williams, Chris Glynn and Mark Eden. In addition to this will be performances of Dodgson’s chamber opera Cadilly and a solo guitar recital by Michael Butten at the Barnes Music Festival on 12 and 18 March respectively.

The world premiere recording of Stephen Dodgson’s chamber opera Margaret Catchpole: Two Worlds Apart is due to be released by Naxos on 29 January 2021.