11 July 2014

CD REVIEW: Judith Weir – THE VANISHING BRIDEGROOM (A. Tynan, A. Stéphany, A. Tortise, O. Gilhooly, J. Lemalu; NMC D196)


JUDITH WEIR (born 1954): The Vanishing BridegroomAilish Tynan (Bride, Wife, Mother), Anna Stéphany (Daughter), Andrew Tortise (Lover, Friend, Preacher), Owen Gilhooly (Bridegroom, Husband, Father), Jonathan Lemalu (Doctor, Policeman, Stranger), Stephen Jeffes (Narrator), Andrew Murgatroyd (Dying Man), Christopher Bowen (Youngest Son), Edward Goater (Middle Son), Edward Price (Eldest Son), Simon Birchall (Bride’s Father), Paul Haas-Curievici (Good Robber), Nicolas Simeha (Bad Robber 1), Jonathan Saunders (Bad Robber 2), Olivia Robinson (Woman 1), Sién Menna (Woman 2), Lynette Alcántara (Woman 3); BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins, conductor [Recorded in concert at the Barbican, London, UK, on 19 January 2008; NMC Recordings NMC D196; 2CD, 82:53; Available from NMC Recordings, Amazon, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Recently confirmed to succeed Sir Peter Maxwell Davies as Master of the Queen’s Music, Cambridge-born composer Judith Weir is among the guiding voices in contemporary Classical Music both in and beyond Britain. Though her work is often—sometimes bewilderingly—compared to that of Benjamin Britten, her compositional idiom is refreshingly unique, not least in the manner in which aspects of disparate tonal methodologies are combined imaginatively. Vitally, the sound worlds conjured in Ms. Weir’s compositions are shaped by landscapes that are unfailingly musical. For this preference for genuine music rather than stylized noise she endures charges of conservatism. Lamentable as it is that a composer of any era should be criticized for setting out to create sounds that beguile rather than batter the ears, Ms. Weir is owed a debt of gratitude for adhering to her principals and providing in The Vanishing Bridegroom a contemporary opera of originality and wit. Commissioned for the 1990 celebrations of Glasgow’s service as the European Capital of Culture, the score exhibits Ms. Weir’s compositional techniques at their most refined, the opera’s polytonal and polyrhythmic elements combining with judiciously-employed doses of atonalism and minimalism to produce a musical panorama that is both thrillingly original and refreshingly approachable. Uniquely, Ms. Weir achieved with The Vanishing Bridegroom the feat of creating a contemporary opera that audiences weaned on standard repertory will actually enjoy hearing, and with this preservation of a 2008 concert reading of the opera at the Barbican NMC Recordings—the go-to label for top-quality performances of the best British contemporary Classical Music—triumph by giving The Vanishing Bridegroom a recording that any listener willing to cast preconceptions aside will want to hear again and again.

To state that Ms. Weir’s score is accessible to audiences for whom opera as a generative art effectively ceased to exist with the death of Benjamin Britten is not to suggest that it panders in any way to old-fashioned sensibilities or that performing it is an easy task for any of the personnel involved. Under the direction of conductor Martyn Brabbins, a dedicated champion of contemporary music, the complexities of The Vanishing Bridegroom are conquered without being smoothed over. The unifying formulaic structures of the opera’s three parts—‘The Inheritance,’ ‘The Disappearance,’ and ‘The Stranger’—are disclosed without being emphasized, allowing the listener to reach individual conclusions about the dramatic connections among the characters and situations. The demands made on the orchestra by Ms. Weir’s music are met with panache by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Spurred by Maestro Brabbins’s energetic leadership, the instrumentalists respond to the shifting moods of the score with great attention to detail, mining the transitions from lush neo-Romanticism to sparse, angular textures for lodes of emotional significance. All sections of the orchestra are given challenging music in which they excel, but the string playing is especially notable for its ideal combination of lean, biting tone and impeccable intonation. Many conductors seem adrift in contemporary music or else are specialists who lack familiarity with standard repertory. Perhaps the greatest peril to an opera like The Vanishing Bridegroom is to approach it as though it needs some sort of unconventional treatment. Shaping the vocal lines with the finesse required for Bellini, regarding the interactions among singers and orchestra as in Verdi, and recognizing the thematic development in the manner of Wagner: these are the tenets of a successful modus operandi for conducting any opera, whether it was composed in 1890 or 1990. Maestro Brabbins paces this performance of The Vanishing Bridegroom with the obvious belief that this is not a ‘new’ opera, a British opera, or an occupant of any other confining categorization. It is merely an opera, and just as in Don Giovanni, Rigoletto, or Madama Butterfly the foremost qualification for success is possessing a complete acquaintance with the music. Maestro Brabbins knows The Vanishing Bridegroom and conducts the score accordingly.

The overall excellence of the BBC Singers, who en masse are a great source of reliably musical singing throughout the performance, is further confirmed by the fine work of individual choristers in solo parts. It would be too much to ask of the singer of the Narrator’s music to manage it without effort, but tenor Stephen Jeffes uses the strain to which the music pushes him to convey the vehemence of the drama. Tenors Andrew Murgatroyd as the Dying Man, Christopher Bowen as the Youngest Son, and Edward Goater as the Middle Son, baritone Edward Price as the Eldest Son, and bass-baritone Simon Birchall as the Bride’s Father in ‘The Inheritance’ and soprano Olivia Robinson and mezzo-sopranos Lynette Alcántara and Sién Menna as the three Women in ‘The Disappearance’ all sing capably and with audible engagement with their rôles. The young singers from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama—tenor Paul Haas-Curievici as the Good Robber and baritone Nicolas Simeha and bass-baritone Jonathan Saunders as the Bad Robbers—also contribute vital, admirably finished performances. In ensemble, the BBC Singers are never more impressive than in their lines as the menacing but seductive, Gaelic-speaking Fairies in ‘The Disappearance.’ Like their BBC Symphony colleagues, the choristers follow Maestro Brabbins’s leadership without hesitation, and the integrity of their elocution meaningfully propels the opera’s theatrical development.

As the Doctor in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Policeman in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the eponymous Stranger in the opera’s final Part, bass-baritone Jonathan Lemalu sings sonorously if not always with absolute steadiness, especially in the upper reaches of the voice. His Doctor is an insinuating, vaguely sinister figure reminiscent of Docteur Miracle in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann. Here and in his portrayal of the Policeman there are subtle suggestions of humor that contrast markedly with the darkness of the musical surroundings. Mr. Lemalu’s Policeman is the bored, dimwitted small-town constable to the life, his statements of ‘People just disappear / That’s what they do’ changing easily enough to ‘People don’t just disappear / They don’t do that’ according to the expectations of his audience. There is an ethereal, indefinably visionary quality in Mr. Lemalu’s performance as the Stranger that warrants comparisons with the title character in Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. Ms. Weir’s demonic Stranger is vanquished rather than redeemed by his interactions with a woman, but there are similar assaults on innocence and paradigmatic transformations. Mr. Lemalu is at his best when hurling out his voice at full throttle, and a few suspect pitches are evidence of his complete surrender to the dramatic potency of his rôles rather than musical carelessness.

Baritone Owen Gilhooly brings a resonant, sinewy voice to his performances as the Bridegroom, the Husband, and the Father. As the symbolic Bridegroom in the opera’s first Part, a cousin of the hapless Arturo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Mr. Gilhooly creates a portrait of a man who is a pawn in a nasty game but is no one’s fool. He is a Husband who is almost willingly beguiled by the Fairies in ‘The Disappearance,’ but his bewilderment at the passage of time upon his return is genuine—and genuinely moving. The Father in ‘The Stranger’ has less to do, but here, too, Mr. Gilhooly impresses, furthering the kinship with Der fliegende Holländer by exhibiting an opportunistic attitude towards his daughter’s betrothal that evokes thoughts of Wagner’s Daland. Mr. Gilhooly is unbothered by the difficulty of his music, and his ringing, masculine tone gives the solo singing a firm, bronzed core.

The most dramatically varied rôles taken by a single singer are the Lover in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Friend in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the Preacher in ‘The Stranger.’ Though viewing the three parts as manifestations of a single personality type is a valid interpretation, each of these characters has his own agenda. The Lover’s renunciation of his vows to the Bride is both selfless and selfish, and the Friend is both a knowing and an unknowing accomplice in the Husband’s disappearance. The Preacher is an enigma: brash and obsequious in the manner of Olin Blitch in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, he fascinates and repulses in equal measures. The refined, slightly grainy tenor of Andrew Tortise is effective in all three rôles. He proves an ardent Lover in ‘The Inheritance,’ but the coldness that chills the sound when the Bride reveals her marriage to another man is telling. As the Friend, Mr. Tortise is an amiable-sounding bloke who is nonetheless slightly too eager to insist that he had no hand in his mate’s unexplainable disappearance. In his performance of the Preacher, he is oily charm personified. Mr. Tortise’s diction cannot always survive the challenges of his music, but the voice never falters, gaining strength and beauty as the lines ascend. Dramatically, he is a constant presence, managing to convey both unsettling humanity and mystery.

Mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany is impassioned in the Daughter’s encounter with evil in ‘The Stranger.’ Ms. Stéphany’s Daughter is a woman who is distracted but never completely undone by a golden-tongued charmer. The capriciousness of her singing of ‘There was a knight riding frae the east’ gives way to increasing determination upon the appearance of the Stranger, and the resolve with which she voices her final statement of ‘Evil gleams brighter than brass’ is exultant. Ms. Stéphany’s voice is a somewhat ungainly instrument over which she does not yet have complete control, but her musical and dramatic instincts are sure. The efficacy of her characterization compensates for the few imperfections in her vocalism, and she makes the opera’s ending bizarrely cathartic.

In her assignments as the Bride in ‘The Inheritance,’ the Wife in ‘The Disappearance,’ and the Mother in ‘The Stranger,’ soprano Ailish Tynan faces some fiercely strenuous music. She more than holds her own and even succeeds in making the pitfalls of her vocal lines an appreciable component of her characterizations. Ms. Tynan devotes an attractive purity to her singing as the Bride, and both her vocalism and her acting as the Wife convey apprehension tinged with resignation. Like Mr. Gilhooly’s Father, less is asked of her as the Mother, but Ms. Tynan maintains an integral part in the drama. So tremendous is her technical assurance that she is able to evince an appearance of ease. The fearlessness with which she attacks the exposed top notes in her music is stunning: still more laudable is the unerring accuracy of her pitch. Even when creating rôles for specific singers, composers rarely write such exacting music with the expectation of hearing it sung as well as Ms. Tynan sings in this performance.

Why The Vanishing Bridegroom is not in the repertories of the world’s important opera houses—especially those in locales in which English is the primary language—is a question only made more confounding by this performance, preserved in studio-quality acoustics and given the first-class presentation that it deserves by NMC Recordings. Surely an opera that inspires singing, playing, and conducting as accomplished as those heard on this recording can inspire equal commitment and appreciation from audiences. Questions about the foibles of opera companies and their constituencies cannot always be answered, but this recording confirms that the response to any question of whether Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom is an important opera is a resounding yes.

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