EVAN L. SNYDER (born 1991): Tiffandra’s Grimoire of Spells, Potions, and Other Such Magicks: A Practice Guide to Witchcraft for the 21st Century Practitioner; or Tiffany’s Spellbook — Tamara Wilson, soprano; Justina Lee, piano [Recorded at GCR Audio, Buffalo, New York USA, 23 February 2022; Lexicon Classics LC2202; 1 CD, 27:56; Available from Lexicon Classics and major music streaming services]
Whether a performance offers Fauré mélodies in an intimate recital hall, an Elgar oratorio in an ancient cathedral, Strauss Lieder with orchestra in a magnificent concert venue, or bawdy songs accompanied by a badly-tuned lounge piano, there is magic in every manifestation of the gift of song. The power of song’s singular sorcery has rarely been more apparent and necessary than in the past two years, during which walls of separation and silence were imposed by the necessity of protecting communities from the ravages of an indiscriminate menace. With dispensaries of art in all forms shuttered, endurance mandated retreating into art itself—into creating, reimagining, rediscovering, and reawakening. No longer merely an escape from everyday doldrums, song was again what it must have been when humans first used their voices to express themselves in music: a new, common language in which emotions and experiences too intimate and intense for fallible words are shared without fear of misunderstanding.
Concert halls, theaters, and opera houses can be closed, but song cannot be suppressed. Like a river finding or forging paths to the sea, songsters must discern or define outlets for their art. During a global pandemic, this process of self-expression inevitably turned inward, the inability to interpret existing music in the company of audiences precipitating a drive to connect with the moment and the innumerable others surviving it via instigating original vehicles of musical camaraderie and collaboration. Of this need to close the divides of forced artistic atrophy arose partnerships among composers, poets, and singers that yielded projects embodying the ethos of this calamitous time in history, song emerging as a powerful vaccine against infectious isolation.
Uniting one of today’s preeminent spinto sopranos with a deservedly-acclaimed composer, Tiffandra’s Grimoire of Spells, Potions, and other such Magicks: A Practical Guide to Witchcraft for the 21st Century Practitioner; or Tiffany’s Spellbook—a title worthy of J.K. Rowling—explores themes of devastating gravity with acuity and whimsy, the alchemy of song employed to translate wearying realities of living during a pandemic into melodious metaphysical conceits. So cleverly are composer Evan L. Snyder’s and soprano Tamara Wilson’s words integrated into the musical tableaux that texts and tones seem inseparable, the music achieving conversational concision reminiscent of the work of Leoš Janáček. Snyder sagaciously avoids sensationalizing and sentimentalizing the themes confronted in Tiffany’s Spellbook, his tuneful, expertly-crafted vocal lines providing Wilson a setting in which her voice can laugh and lament with equal immediacy.
One of a minuscule number of sopranos before the public today who both consistently sing the written top D♭ in Leonora’s Act Four aria in Il trovatore and often pay homage to Leyla Gencer and Marisa Galvany by interpolating a rousing top D in the trio in Act Two of Un ballo in maschers, Wilson is a Verdi soprano with few peers. [Click here to read the Voix des Arts review of her unforgettable portrayal of Gulnara in Washington Concert Opera’s 2014 performance of Il corsaro.] The range, textual vividness, and interpretive versatility that shape her performances of Verdi rôles foster a traversal of Tiffany’s Spellbook in which Lady Macbeth’s manipulative charisma, Lucrezia Contarini’s fierce determination, Aida’s inner conflict, and Desdemona’s vulnerability intermingle enchantingly. Pianist Justina Lee plays Snyder’s music as though she were extemporaneously composing it herself, her phrasing generating its own sorcery as each of the piece’s spells is intoned. Music, words, piano, and voice mold a narrative in which seduction, sarcasm, and solemnity intertwine compellingly.
Truly providing a ‘first glimpse of magick,’ Tiffany’s Spellbook’s Foreword is a sort of prelude in the manners of both the opening songs of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise and the spoken prologue to Bartók’s A kékszakállú herceg vára. Wilson’s incantation establishes an atmosphere of eerie good humor, the smile in the voice audible even when words are hurled out with cyclonic force. Throughout the cycle, Snyder’s music evolves with the shifting moods of the texts, sounds of disquieting dissonance metamorphosing into beguiling harmonies that glisten as Wilson and Lee reveal them.
Like all of the journeys in this Spellbook, the transition into Spell No. 1, ‘The Elixir of Exactly Eight Hours of Sleep,’ is navigated with wit, the composer intuitively bridging the pauses in the words with music that guides the listener into the unique soundscapes of each episode. Glimmers of Alice Ford’s cunning scintillate in Wilson’s singing, reflecting the streams of light that cascade from the piano. Similarly, music and performance converge mesmerizingly in Spell No. 2, ‘A Do-Little Potion for Conversing with Animals,’ the words handled with clarity that accentuates their cleverness. Lee’s vibrant realizations of the coruscating piano figurations bring the marvels of human interactions with nature to the foreground, intensifying the sincerity of Wilson’s delivery of the text. There is no sermonizing in the performance, but the power of the soprano’s voice sounds a warning that cannot be ignored, intimating that no environmental necromancy can restore natural order when man destroys it.
The third of the spells, ‘Practical Practices for When Plagued by a Plague,’ is especially poignant, but Wilson avoids allowing the momentous pathos of the subject to overwhelm the vocal and interpretive buoyancy of her performance. Here and in the fourth spell, ‘A Spell for Sudden Sobriety,’ the mercurial joviality of Wilson’s declamation of Snyder’s melodies discloses no artifice, the ambiguities of comedy and cataclysm addressed with unaffected directness. The ambivalent frustration at the unceasing necessity of safety protocols, both that conditions warrant them and that resistance demands that they be repeatedly restated, explodes in the soprano’s anguished exclamation of ‘Stay six feet apart and wear a damn mask!’ Far more than dismay over a few drinks too many simmers in Wilson’s singing of ‘There comes a time, in most mortal’s [sic] lives, when they regret what they’ve imbibed,’ a longing for absolution gnawing at the flippant surface of the text. It is difficult to characterize Snyder’s music except by saying that every note belongs in Tiffany’s Spellbook. Influences as diverse as Schumann, Brahms, Finzi, and Britten appear and fade, but the tonal language—advanced but mellifluous—remains that of this composer and this work.
Tiffany’s Spellbook’s Dedication, a reminder that ‘A Drop of Good Magick is unique to each individual who invokes it,’ is an apt resolution for the piece, Wilson and Lee approaching Snyder’s thematic summation not with finality but with a palpable sense of individual and collective renewal. It is sometimes easy to forget that, even when preserved for posterity via the art of sound recording, every performance is a singular experience that can never be wholly replicated. As an aural document, this performance of Tiffany’s Spellbook is of course unchanged on the first and the hundredth hearings, yet the work itself engages the senses differently each time that it is played. Always alluring, Tamara Wilson’s voice bewitches each pair of ears as the heart to which they are attached dictates. This is the real magic of Tiffany’s Spellbook.