THE SOFA/THE DEPARTURE
Sarah Tynan (Monique), Alinka Kozári (Lucille), Anna Leese (Laura), Josephine Thorpe (Dominic’s Grandmother), Patricia Orr (Yolande), Nicholas Sharratt (Prince Dominic), Patrick Ashcroft (A Suitor), George von Bergen (Edward)
Louise Poole (Julia), Håkan Vramsmo (Mark)
Chorus and Ensemble of Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells c. Dominic Wheeler
Chandos CHAN 10508 (70 minutes)
These brief one-acters, revived for the centenary of Maconchy’s birth by Independent Opera (a showcase company for young opera professionals) at Sadler’s Wells in 2007, are given further exposure by this Chandos studio recording, funded by the Peter Moore’s Foundation, who have done so much for Opera in English. They were assessed in depth, in the January 2008 issue, by Tim Ashley, who gave them a not-quite convinced endorsement. A third one-act work, The Three Strangers, based on Thomas Hardy, remains un-revived, and given the length of these two, could possibly fill out an evening to make an English Trittico.
I did not see these operas staged, but as a listener I found The Sofa to be the more rewarding of the two – the opposite to Tim Ashley. Maybe the updating of The Sofa –from the librettist’s nineteenth century to a present day rave submerged the craft and poise of this rather coy sex comedy. Those familiar with the uncompromising string quartets are in for a shock, the language is tonal, sharply parodic, yet woven into a fabric that absorbs a wealth of allusions to vernacular dance music and deepens out into something more individual and telling – the interplay of ‘vapid party music’ – Ashley’s words, not mine – and other material works well enough for La traviata, and does so again here, and the transitions from solo to ensemble are effortless and masterly. It is a shame that more salient material is not reprised, as many memorable ideas whizz past without being consolidated, and Maconchy balks at nailing a scene or situation with an expected climax.
I wasn’t so convinced by The Departure, an elegiac colloquy between the dead and living that reminded me, in musical language and subject matter, of Holst’s Savitri. The musical material has less profile, and the construction is more haphazard. Several promising lyrical moments disperse too soon, the alternation between cantabile singing and spoken declamation –a challenge for any singer to deliver convincingly, and not well managed here – repeatedly breaks the spell. The one allusion to dance music, a bitter-sweet waltz reminiscence, unlike those in The Sofa, seems out of character with the prevailing musical landscape. Surely the crucial revelation that it is Julia, and not her husband who is dead, comes too early in the piece and is volunteered too casually. The whole work is pitched at an emotional mezzo-forte which never quite clinches, though there are arresting ideas and textures. Anne Ridler’s libretto proves resistible; the sincerity is not in doubt, but there are jolting turns of phrase (‘Joy is afar over the Alps of loss’)which prove momentarily undermining. Nevertheless, both pieces strike me as more rewarding than the late one-acters of Holst and Walton, and deserve wider currency.
Some of the reservations Tim Ashley made concerning the performances are ameliorated by the recording. Diction is clearer and the voices are not overbearing, rather they are put in a pleasing aural perspective (both onstage and off) within a generous, yet natural ambience. In The Sofa, Nicholas Sharratt dominates; his tightish tenor is not the most flexible instrument, but the profligate Prince Dominic is well-characterized. Sarah Tynan phrases nicely as Monique, coping well with Maconchy’s alluring and shapely high register writing. Josephine Thorpe as Dominic’s Grandmother, is lamb not convincing as mutton: there are legions of redoubtable operatic trouts who would not need acting to bring this short yet crucial cameo to life, even though such casting is presumably beyond the remit of this youth-oriented company. In The Departure, Louise Poole’s performance as Julia is not as comfortable a listen as her glowing stage reviews led me to expect. Though designated a mezzo-soprano role, it lies consistently high and requires an expansive legato maybe more suited to a clear soprano: here such phrases sound tense and stretched, though there are some ravishing high floated notes. Inevitably, diction is a casualty. Not so with Håkan Vramsmo, who gives an intense performance with crisp enunciation. Dominic Wheeler leads the Independent Opera Ensemble with a good ear for colour, rhythmic clarity and a wide range of dynamics. Packaging is to Chandos’s usual exemplary standard, with highly informative notes from Stephen Pettitt.
© Julian Grant 2009