17 June 2019

CD REVIEW: Poul Ruders — THE THIRTEENTH CHILD (S. Shafer, T. Mumford, A. Sewailam, M. Boehler, A. Kent, D. Portillo, A. Rosen, A. Evans; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527)

IN REVIEW: Poul Ruders - THE THIRTEENTH CHILD (Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527)POUL RUDERS (born 1949): The Thirteenth ChildSarah Shafer (Lyra, Princess of Frohagord), Tamara Mumford (Gertrude, Queen of Frohagord; Ghost of Gertrude), Ashraf Sewailam (Drokan, Regent of Hauven), Alasdair Kent (Frederic, Prince of Hauven; Toke, Prince of Frohagord), David Portillo (Benjamin, Prince of Frohagord), Matt Boehler (Hjarne, King of Frohagord), Alex Rosen (Corbin, Prince of Frohagord), Amber Evans (choral soloist); Bridge Academy Singers, Odense Symfoniorkester; David Starobin and Benjamin Shwartz, conductors [Recorded in Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark, The American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York City, USA, and New Rochelle Studios, New Rochelle, New York, USA, during September 2016 and December 2018; Bridge Records BRIDGE 9527; 1 CD, 77:50; Available from Bridge Records and major music retailers]

When his opera L’Orfeo premièred in Mantua in 1607, within mere days of the landing of the first party of successful English settlers in what would become the colony of Virginia, can Claudio Monteverdi have imagined that, 412 years later, not only would opera remain a thriving art form but that tomes would have been written about how L’Orfeo and his other surviving operas should be performed in the Twenty-First Century? Scholars debate whether short-lived composers including Mozart and Bellini expected their operas to be studied and appreciated by future generations, and there are many lamentable examples, among whom Rossini is one of the most familiar, of composers witnessing the waning of interest in their music. Wagner surely intended to be discussed by future listeners and musicologists, but perhaps he did not envision the virtues and vices of his operas being debated no less vehemently—likely more so, in fact—in 2019 as at the time of his death in 1883. If the important composers of the past considered the notion of opera’s future, how might they have dreamed that opera would sound in 2019?

It is likely that opera can survive on a diet of familiar works, but the genre’s appetite for new music must be fed in order to ensure that opera will thrive throughout and beyond the Twenty-First Century. It cannot be denied that innovation is not always welcomed, however. A maddening paradox of opera in the new millennium is that, in many instances, those listeners who dismiss current trends in staging standard-repertory works as unacceptable also reject new works. Professing to advocate for the perpetual vitality of opera, some connoisseurs argue both that long-admired scores should be shelved until singers and conductors capable of equaling acclaimed performances of past generations can be found and that most new works are not worthy of sharing stages with beloved classics.

All listeners, novices and aficionados, have likes and dislikes and the right to defend them, but opera quickly stagnates without new voices and new music. Since the label’s inception, Bridge Records releases have given listeners opportunities to discover new works in an array of genres, introducing or deepening acquaintances with accomplished composers, musicians, librettists, and lyricists. The present release, The Thirteenth Child, is a masterfully-recorded continuation of the label’s initiatives, but it is not merely the product of a concerted effort to affirm the merits of contemporary music. This project is the apotheosis of a personal crusade to create an opera not as an academic exercise in joining words with music but as a rejuvenation of the theatrical aesthetics that characterize the works that shaped the first four centuries of opera’s history.

Adapted from Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm’s story ‘Die zwölf Brüder,’ Danish composer Poul Ruder’s two-act opera The Thirteenth Child is a setting of an atmospheric, wonderfully singable libretto by Becky and David Starobin, the founders of Bridge Records. Under their guidance, this world-première recording, the release of which coincides with the opening of the opera’s inaugural production at Santa Fe Opera on 27 July 2019, gives the opera a truly memorable début.

The vocal music conducted by David Starobin and the superlative playing of the Odense Symfoniorkester, by which ensemble The Thirteenth Child was commissioned in partnership with Santa Fe Opera, led in Act One by Starobin and in Act Two by Benjamin Shwartz, there is not one passage of the score that seems haphazardly paced. The opera advances with cinematic celerity that incites both Starobin and Shwartz to conducting of gripping urgency. Throughout the performance, maintaining the intelligibility of the text is paramount. The result of this concentration on the impact of the words is a drama that ensnares the listener’s heart.

The operatic tapestry woven by the Starobins from the threads of the Grimms’ story unfurls in music that is by turns mesmerizing, wrenching, moving, and, in the opera’s final scene, uplifting. Born on the bustling island of Zealand in the Baltic Sea, Ruders turned to composition after studying the organ. From that start, a trajectory that is often audible in this score, he has forged a career that, with The Thirteenth Child, has engendered five operas. With each of these works, Ruders has exhibited an exceptional faculty for recounting profoundly human experiences in music that heightens their universality.

As its Grimmsian provenance suggests, The Thirteenth Child is fantastical, but the score is always rooted in a plausible emotional reality that is reinforced by transitional Interludes. Ruders eschews obvious, coy allusions and effects: the metamorphosis of the princes of Frohagord into ravens exerts a temptation to indulge in Wagnerian pastiche that many composers would find irresistible, but Ruders devises his own musical language for this and all of the opera’s dramatic exploits. That language, closely allied with the Starobins’ words, evokes an enigmatic, ritualistic realm in which discordant hostility ultimately cannot vanquish melody.

It is not surprising that considerable care was employed in casting this recorded performance of The Thirteenth Child, but engaging artists with uniformly exemplary qualifications for their rôles is rare in any repertoire. Soprano Amber Evans impresses as both chorus master of the Bridge Academy Singers and soloist, and her example clearly influenced the elegant, ideally-balanced singing of the choristers. Bass Alex Rosen’s voicing of Corbin, one of the ill-fated Princes of Frohagord, is handsomely forthright, his unaffected approach to the part conveying the frustration of a strong youth prostrated by ungovernable circumstances.

Few singers embody the musical and temperamental meanings of tenore di grazia as fully as tenor David Portillo. Acclaimed as an interpreter of Baroque, Classical, bel canto, and modern music, he possesses an appealing, flexible voice, the technical acumen required to use it properly, and an unfeigned charisma that endears his characterizations to audiences. As Benjamin, the youngest Prince of Frohagord, in The Thirteenth Child, Portillo provides a beam of light that brightens the decaying, Cimmerian environment engendered by Hjarne’s suspicions and uncertainty. United in Act Two with Lyra, the sister whose existence was hidden from the Princes, Benjamin realizes that the girl will fall victim to her brothers’ longing for vengeance. Singing ‘I must hide you’ with a torrent of fraternal affection, the tenor traverses the range of the music effortlessly, his upper register shimmering.

Portillo delivers Benjamin’s riddle with boyish playfulness, slyly shepherding his brothers to the discovery of Lyra. Transformed into a raven, Benjamin receives a mortal wound whilst freeing Lyra from flames that threaten to consume her. Portillo voices Benjamin’s dying words, ‘I hardly knew my parents’ love, yet felt complete in brotherhood,’ with touching sincerity. The Grimm story indicates that Benjamin was named for the biblical son of Jacob whose honesty and loyalty restored his brethren to the good graces of their wronged brother Joseph. In The Thirteenth Child, Benjamin’s sacrifice precipitates the opera’s lieto fine, and Portillo’s portrayal makes the young man’s modest but pivotal valor poignantly credible.

First heard in the music accompanying Hjarne’s funeral in the second scene of Act One, the voice of tenor Alasdair Kent is extraordinarily beautiful. In both the music for Frederic, Prince of Hauven, and the few words sung by Toke, Prince of Frohagord, Kent sings gloriously, his golden tones drawing their patina from his sparkling diction. When Frederic returns in the third scene of Act Two, the tenor persuasively expresses the prince’s yearning in his account of ‘For seven years I searched in vain.’ Later​, ​entreating the duplicitous Drokan to watch over the mute Lyra, Kent’s Frederic sings ‘Keep my beloved safe’ with tenderness and integrity that only the basest villain could betray. The brief, soaring phrases with the liberated Lyra in the opera’s final scene are projected with fearlessness and intonational accuracy. In longevity, Kent’s parts in The Thirteenth Child are not extensive, but his ringing, regal vocalism gives this performance its romantic hero.

Bass Matt Boehler copes courageously and securely but not always comfortably with the sepulchral tessitura of Ruder’s music for Hjarne, King of Frohagord. Manipulated by Drokan’s duplicitous warnings about his sons’ plots to usurp his throne, Hjarne is goaded into a state of Lear-like delirium in the throes of which he trusts no one, and Boehler utters the king’s raving ‘I gave them life’ with sputtering ire. This contrasts tellingly with the haunting loveliness with which he voices ‘The night air groans.’ Like many historical kings, Hjarne’s most powerful enemy is his own weakness, but in Boehler’s performance there is dignity even in the king’s most manic moments.

Drokan, Regent of Hauven, is the sort of irredeemable schemer who in a silent film might affix helpless maidens to railroad tracks. In fact, he resorts as his final misdeed in The Thirteenth Child to binding Lyra to a bonfire. The character’s one-dimensional pursuit of power notwithstanding, bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam portrays Drokan as a man of Machiavellian cunning. Preying upon ​Hjarne​’s insecurity with insinuation, this Drokan is a model of false concern.

Sewailam’s voice echoes the perilous duality of the character’s words: frighteningly thunderous in anger, his singing can also be cajolingly soft. The jealous malevolence that erupts in his voicing of ‘Their house endures with each new child’ unmasks Drokan’s perfidy. The listener knows the calculating regent’s intentions before they become apparent to those he seeks to harm, of course, and he is in Sewailam’s performance unsettlingly chameleonic, alternately suave and sinister. The bass-baritone’s voice is perfect for the part, his granitic timbre and emphatic delivery filling Drokan’s veins with coldly fiendish blood.

Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford is one of today’s most versatile singers. Unlike versatile singers who personify the cliché of being jacks of all trades and masters of none, Mumford excels in many musical styles. To their company she adds Ruders’s music for Gertrude, whom she will also portray in the Santa Fe Opera production of The Thirteenth Child. Enacting the confusion and horror of the queen’s response to ​Hjarne​’s bizarre ranting and unprovoked repudiation of their children, Mumford sings first ‘Lilies, red with blood, their beauty ever flowers’ and then ‘What is this madness?’ with musical and verbal immediacy, disclosing a queen’s poise, a wife’s alarm, and a mother’s anxiety.

Mumford’s phrasing of ‘O’, your sweetness dulled his rage’ in Gertrude’s death scene recalls the cadences of John Dowland’s doleful lute songs. Aided by suitably spectral electronic reverberation, she eerily intones the pronouncements of Gertrude’s ghost, dismay suffusing her singing of ‘My child, what have you done?’ when Lyra guilelessly destroys the lilies that are the Hofmannsthal-esque symbols of the princes’ existence. Alive and dead, Gertrude is the voice of reason in an increasingly unhinged domain. Mumford’s vocal prowess and theatrical savvy magnify this matriarch’s domination of a patriarchal world.

The thirteenth child of the opera’s title, Princess Lyra unwittingly jeopardizes the lives of the brothers she has never known and atones for her mistake by submitting to seven years of silence. Soprano Sarah Shafer interprets the rôle without artifice, evincing the princess’s innocence with singing of gossamer purity. Learning from her dying mother of the wrongs endured by the brothers she has never met, Lyra resolves to find and help the twelve princes. A guitar emerges from the instrumental ensemble to animate the accompaniment to ‘Oh, mother, your hand still warm, guide me,’ lending this music the communicative spirit of a troubadour’s ballad, and Shafer’s performance focuses on the text.

The soprano’s demeanor in the scene in which Gertrude’s ghost appears to Lyra is convincingly unnerved, but the voice remains glowingly resilient. Mourning the death of Benjamin, who gives his life in order to save Lyra from Drokan’s machinations, Shafer’s voice throbs with emotion as she sings ‘Benjamin! Do not go!’ The catharsis of the restoration of the princes’ birthright and Lyra’s joyous reunion with Frederic is all the sweeter for its brevity. Shafer’s voice rockets above the stave with the brilliance of a fireworks display, but Ruders does not prolong the celebration. There is a sense of reclaimed equilibrium: Lyra is eager to carry on, living rather than extolling normalcy. If the quality of Shafer’s singing in The Thirteenth Child were normal in performances of contemporary operas, their paths to acceptance might be far less arduous.

In some ways, it is now more difficult than ever before to bring a new opera to the stage, not least in terms of securing financial support. Perhaps contributing to a lasting work of art is no longer viewed as being as meaningful a return on an investment as it once was, or perhaps it is more gratifying to back projects that are more visible than operas are in the Twenty-First Century. From its earliest birth pangs in the Sixteenth Century, though, operatic innovation has relied not upon the espousal of the masses but upon the vision and daring of a small community of artists and their advocates. There are many variables in the equation that determines an opera’s success, yet, as The Thirteenth Child demonstrates, the computation is simple. The common denominator among memorable operas old and new is an engaging story told with words and music to which performers and audiences respond. Performed with the enthusiasm that this recording exudes, The Thirteenth Child is a score in which progress raises its voice like a lily lifting its head to welcome a new day.