October 26, 2017
(+++) STORIES IN SONG
Robert Aldridge: Sister Carrie. Adriana Zabala, mezzo-soprano; Keith Pares, baritone; Matt Morgan, tenor; Alisa Suzanne Jordheim, soprano; Florentine Opera Chorus, Florentine Opera Company and Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Boggs. Naxos. $12.99 (2 CDs).
Nicholas Vines: Loose, Wet, Perforated—A Morality Play in Four Ordeals. Guerilla Opera. Navona. $14.99.
Imagine Christmas. Sono Luminus. $12.99.
Fans of American opera may not be legion, but they are certainly enthusiastic, and their enthusiasm is well-founded with the Naxos release of Robert Aldridge’s Sister Carrie, which offers a full two-and-half hours of very-well-made music for a bargain price. That does not mean the opera itself has any sense of “bargain basement” about it: Aldridge (born 1954), who previously wrote Elmer Gantry with the same fine librettist, Herschel Garfein, here again harnesses tonality and archetypal American characters and ambitions to fine effect. Sister Carrie was Theodore Dreiser’s first novel, published to an underwhelming reception in 1900 and roundly condemned as sordid and immoral – which, by comparison with the upstanding notions of Victorian times, it was. It is a realistic as well as highly melodramatic look at a young Wisconsin girl swept into the pleasures and perils of the big city (Chicago and, later, New York) and finding, after involvement with a succession of men, that even when she eventually attains success, it is empty and does not make her happy. The bleakness of the story is comparable to that of Dreiser’s later works, but Aldridge does not opt for a Wozzeck-style doom-laden atmosphere, preferring to emphasize elements of the story that are upbeat or gentle and to contrast those with the negative ones. This works well: the music becomes part of the narrative (to a greater extent than in Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry, where the text carried the opera); and while the visuals would surely enhance the telling, Aldridge and Garfein limn the characters and their settings so skillfully that this two-CD set works quite well on its own. Adriana Zabala makes a fine Carrie in sympathetic-but-doomed-heroine mode (although she is not “doomed” in the manner of other opera characters of the time). Zabala sings a considerable amount of Baroque music, and it shows in the ease with which she handles the vocal demands of her part. Keith Phares as her lover, George Hurstwood, has a more-dramatic (actually more-melodramatic) role that requires him to journey from success to despair and finally desperation. Phares makes the overdone, overdrawn character believable with a fine, warm voice and a sense of true involvement in the drama. Carrie’s earlier lover, Drouet, is nicely if a bit blandly sung by Matt Morgan; and the showgirl Lola gets a fine coloratura-soprano turn from Alisa Suzanne Jordheim. Other singers also handle their roles aptly, and William Boggs leads the production – including a very-fine-sounding Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra – with a sure hand and strong sense of pacing. Neither opera in general nor American opera in particular can be said to have wide appeal; for that matter, Dreiser’s books, once so controversial, now seem over-plotted and manipulative of characters and readers alike, to such an extent that they have fallen into considerable disfavor. Still, it does not require great literature to make engaging opera, and for those interested in Sister Carrie – perhaps because of familiarity not with Dreiser’s novel but with William Wyler’s 1952 film adaptation, Carrie, starring Laurence Olivier, Jennifer Jones and Eddie Albert – this recording will be very welcome indeed.
An even smaller audience is clearly the target of Nicholas Vines’ Loose, Wet, Perforated, in which the composer/librettist paints a surreal landscape mixing TV game and reality shows with a shadowy secret organization that appears to have the power to elevate people to fame or relegate them to obscurity. The oddly named performance group Guerilla Opera (the correct spelling is “guerrilla”) certainly engages itself in this hour-plus celebration of cacophony and absurdity, and the unusual instrumentation – clarinet, saxophone, trombone and percussion – makes for some suitably weird acoustical elements. But unlike Sister Carrie, Vines’ work seems very pale indeed without some sort of visual setting. The singing – actually mostly declamation and standard-issue Sprechstimme – is almost a parody of what many listeners would expect in contemporary vocal writing, with the occasional spoken word or phrase suddenly breaking into melodic lines (although “melodic” is an overstatement for what is heard here). The singers are intended to represent the three words of the title: Alana de la Guardia is “Loose,” Brian Church is “Wet,” and Doug Dodson is “Perforated.” A fourth participant, Thea Lobo, handles various subsidiary elements. Or maybe they are not subsidiary – the point of Loose, Wet, Perforated appears to be that nothing matters much more than anything else, in modern life or in the opera itself. Of course the whole production is supposed to be symbolic as all get-out, and tremendously meaningful to the cognoscenti who can ferret out what it is trying to say. The problem is that it does not seem to be saying very much – certainly not very much that has not been said before, and with greater clarity and impact elsewhere. The game-show-as-reality-as-reality-show concept has theatrical possibilities, to be sure, and it is easy to imagine a kind of pervasive dark humor in the staging of Loose, Wet, Perforated. But it is impossible to know if there actually was any such during this performance; and the material as heard here, as a strictly auditory experience, comes closer to sounding ludicrous than to seeming profound.
For a CD as apparently lacking in portentousness and pretension as Loose, Wet, Perforated is packed with them, the Sono Luminus seasonal offering with the simple title of Imagine Christmas would appear to fill the bill. But titles can be deceiving – not the titles of the dozen pieces heard here, but the implications of seeing them listed. What is unusual about this disc is that although the music is familiar, listeners must indeed “imagine” the well-known words to most of these selections, because this is only in part a vocal disc. In fact, it is only in part a Christmas disc, at least as the term is usually understood. The musical arrangements are frequently downright strange. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s version of Silent Night, for example, is far from silent and not particularly nocturnal. White Christmas has an interesting sound as played on violin (Irina Muresanu) and piano (Matei Varga), but the basic pace is a dragging rather than warmly sentimental one, and the sudden appearance of a short violin cadenza is unsettling. Even when there are vocals in a work, as in the Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, the effect tends to be unexpected: the feeling of this arrangement is more doom-and-gloom than seasonal merriment. That does not mean Imagine Christmas is a CD for the Scrooge lurking in so many of us as we tolerate the incessantly bright, upbeat Christmas tunes that pervade the atmosphere from Halloween to Christmas Day and sometimes beyond. The release does not appear to be intended as a counterweight to frothy and overly light holiday fare – just, perhaps, a different view of Frosty the Snowman, December: Christmas, Holly Jolly Christmas, Walking in the Air, ’Twas the Night Before Christmas, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, Christmas Time Is Here, Joy to the World, and Good King Wenceslas. It is certainly an interesting approach to all these standards of the season – even though, at times, it is a less-than-congenial one. But listeners who find themselves longing for entirely straightforward handling of Christmastime favorites have plenty, plenty, of other places to turn.