October 06, 2022

(++++) AH, THE STAGE!

Suppé: Die Reise um die Erde in 80 Tagen. Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Dario Salvi. Naxos. $13.99.

Edward German: Music for the Stage. Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adrian Leaper. Naxos. $13.99.

Nicholas White: Songs of Innocence; The Raven. Clara Rottsolk, soprano; Roger O. Isaacs, countertenor; Matthew Loyal Smith, tenor; Mark Andrew Cleveland, bass; Heather Braun-Bakken and Heidi Braun-Hill, violins; Christopher Nunn, viola; Colleen McGary-Smith, cello; Kate Foss, double bass; Laura Ward, piano. MSR Classics. $18.99 (2 CDs).

Alastair White: RUNE. Patricia Auchterlonie, soprano; Simone Ibbett-Brown, mezzo-soprano; Ben Smith, Siwan Rhys and Joseph Havlat, pianos. Métier. $18.99.

     Although we think mostly of opera and ballet when it comes to classical-music theatrical works, it is worth remembering that composers often created music for other stage purposes, such as interludes and “musical underlining” for spoken-word plays. Much of that music is virtually unperformable in concert form, although an occasional piece, such as Sibelius’ Valse triste from Kuolema, stands on its own quite well. The same cannot be said of Franz von Suppé’s music for plays such as Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne’s very popular 1872 novel, which became an 1874 play. The play (by prolific playwright Adolphe-Eugène-Philippe d’Ennery) makes Verne’s story into even more of an adventure romp than it is in the novel, emphasizing the most overtly dramatic material and downplaying much of the scene-setting – which is left largely to the music. Suppé came through with suitable material in fine fettle, using his talent for melodiousness and his flair for orchestration to illustrate everything from the original wager to a three-wedding finale. The tone-painting is, not surprisingly, on the obvious side: the music needed to make its points quickly, without distracting the audience from the story. So Suppé includes everything from an Oriental gong to a pistol shot (in a scene in the United States). The love-story elements are as well-handled as the intense ones (an Indian attack on a train, the explosion of the ship carrying the adventurers homeward), and Suppé uses every available opportunity to showcase his skill at musical scene-creation. This music for Die Reise um die Erde in 80 Tagen has never been recorded before, and that is scarcely a surprise, since it contains several incidental pieces lasting less than a minute, and although a few scenes are in the four-to-seven-minute range, there is nothing continuously melodious that would work well out of the context of the play. There is plenty of rousing, triumphal material here, though, nicely leavened with lyricism from time to time, and the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra under Dario Salvi plays everything with suitable élan and apparent enjoyment on a new Naxos CD. This is scarcely great music, but it is a lot of fun to hear, even without the words of the play to indicate exactly what is going on at any given point.

     Like Suppé, Edward German was devoted to the stage in ways both operatic and non-operatic. Aside from a couple of works that remain in the repertoire at least occasionally, notably Tom Jones (1906-07), German is distinguished for creating the last opera to a libretto by W.S. Gilbert: Fallen Fairies, or The Wicked World (1909). Actually, it was also German’s last opera – and was not a notable success either for him or for Gilbert (whose longtime collaborator, Sir Arthur Sullivan, had died nine years earlier and had at one point proclaimed German his successor). German did not have Sullivan’s melodic gift (or Suppé’s), but he regularly produced pleasant, well-crafted music that understandably brought him considerable success in his lifetime and just as understandably largely faded after his death in 1936. A Naxos re-release of recordings from 1991 of some of German’s stage music, performed by the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra under Adrian Leaper, confirms both the quality and the limitations of German’s art: nothing here is less than pleasant and nothing is eminently noteworthy. The disc actually includes an instrumental arrangement of a famous number from Tom Jones, the waltz-song from Act III known as For Tonight. But most of the material is drawn from incidental music for various plays that German illustrated musically with considerable skill – and without creating pieces that would distract audiences from the action and spoken words. The disc is arranged in no logical order, the result being that it shows German’s style to have evolved very little during the two-decade time period in which these works were written. The pieces are the overture and three dances from Nell Gwyn (1900); four characteristic dances gathered as Gipsy Suite (1889-92); three dances from the music for Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (1891); a berceuse from a work called The Tempter (1893); incidental music from Romeo and Juliet (1895); and a short four-movement suite from Merrie England (1902/1908), one of German’s most-popular works. German’s music tends to be more forgettable than Suppé’s or Sullivan’s, but it clearly serves the purposes for which he created it and, in performances as good as these, makes for an enjoyable, if occasional, listening experience.

     “Occasional” is also the right frequency for listening to two theatrically thought-out settings by Nicholas White (born 1967) of familiar poetry by William Blake (Songs of Innocence) and Edgar Allan Poe (The Raven). The Blake settings are more effective in the way they draw on multiple vocal ranges and provide apt instrumental coloration (under White’s leadership) that differentiates the texts well and allows the dominant brightness and subsidiary-but-crucial darker elements to come through to very good effect. The 18 songs, pervaded as they are by Blake’s mysticism, include some lines that the “woke” mobs of today would surely suppress if they could, but White retains the poems as Blake created them and in so doing transcends our own time as surely as the musical settings transcend Blake’s. There are, however, exceptions here and there to White’s sensitivity to the poet: for example, The Little Black Boy is retitled Heaven’s Light, although the boy’s plaintive cry to be reborn as a lamb in Heaven and thus become lovable is as powerful as ever. White’s settings lack the tremendous power of William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but they are well-proportioned, well-thought-out, and generally sensitive to the nuances of the poetry. White is, however, much less sensitive to Poe’s The Raven, one of Poe’s many products focusing on obsession and mental collapse. Here the characteristics that make White’s Blake settings effective – the use of multiple voices and multiple instrumental colors – work against the words rather than with them, bringing The Raven far too much variety of sound and feeling. Poe’s poem is uttered by a single narrator, and it simply makes no contextual or interpretative sense to use more than one. Similarly, the multifaceted instrumental accompaniment, although nicely structured and very well-played, does not fit Poe’s gloom particularly well. It is true that one could easily overdo a setting of The Raven by assigning it to, say, a bass-baritone narrator and a single instrument (cello, or piano using only the lower half of the keyboard). But White’s treatment overdoes things in the opposite way: he never makes the material sound light, but Poe was careful to create an atmosphere of unremitting guilt and gloom, and that does not come through here. This two-CD release from MSR Classics has far more bright spots than dark ones, but some of those bright spots are somewhat misplaced.

     It is worth remembering that opera does remain a major factor in contemporary classical music – but it is often not what earlier composers would have thought of as opera. Alastair White’s “fashion-opera” trilogy – ROBE, WOAD and RUNE – sounds much more like Nicholas White’s poetic settings of Blake and Poe than like anything traditionally deemed operatic, although it is much less emotionally communicative. RUNE, now available as a (+++) Métier release, does not have any of the poetic elegance of either Blake or Poe: Alastair White (no relation to Nicholas White), who wrote the words himself, is mostly concerned here with painting a vast science-fictional canvas and using the story to reach for a sort of profundity that, in truth, RUNE never achieves. Like WOAD, its predecessor, RUNE is determined to be heard, seen and accepted as avant-garde, and is a sort of mixture of the declamatory with straightforward storytelling with a sort-of-song sort-of-cycle. The soprano and mezzo-soprano voices are not used especially distinctively most of the time, although there are a few occasions where there is real creativity: in “If life makes,” one voice delivers lines slowly and portentously while the other literally whispers at the same time and at a significantly faster tempo, resulting in an interesting effect if not an increase in comprehensibility. Part of the difficulty in listening to this CD arises from the fact that RUNE was designed as a multimedia experience, including dance and, yes, fashion: what is heard on the disc is thus only part of a presentation intended to be much more wide-ranging. What is left is the story of a planet where history is forbidden (of course it is supposed to make the audience think of the buried past of Earth) and where one young girl violates cultural taboos by telling her own story, which turns out to reach unimaginably far into the past and produce resonances that no one could have anticipated – well, no one but readers of science fiction, for whom the foundational plot here, about the opportunities and dangers of digging too far into times long gone, will be thrice-familiar. Alastair White’s sincerity comes through clearly, and the two vocalists and three pianists play their parts very well, but RUNE is more an intellectual exercise and a none-too-subtle advocacy piece than a truly gripping story or musical experience, much less a musical-and-dramatic one.

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