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Dellaira: The Secret Agent / Burton, Bearden, Jobin, Contemporary Opera Center

Release Date: 11/12/2013 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1450   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Michael Dellaira
Performer:  Matthew GarrettMark ZuckermanJodi KaremJonathan Blalock,   ... 
Conductor:  Sara Jobin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Center for Contemporary Opera
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DELLAIRA The Secret Agent Sara Jobin, cond; Jodi Karem ( Lady Mabel ); Scott Bearden ( Adolf Verloc ); Nathan Resika ( First Secretary, The Singer, Constable ); Andrew Cummings ( The Ambassador ); Mark Zuckerman ( The Prime Minister ); Amy Burton ( Winnie Verloc Read more class="ARIAL12">); Jonathan Blalock ( Stevie ); Matthew Garrett ( Ossipon ); Aaron Theno ( Michaelis ); Matt Boehler ( The Professor ); David Neal ( The Commissioner ); Jason Papowitz ( Chief Inspector Heat ); ens ALBANY 1450/51 (2 CDs: 99:30 Text and Translation)

Michael Dellaira’s opera The Secret Agent is based on the 1907 Joseph Conrad novel of the same name, itself based on an actual historic event, the attempted bombing of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, in 1894. The bombing, an act of anarchistic terrorism by one Martial Bourdin, did not succeed in causing any damage to the observatory, the official arbiter of the world’s time, when Bourdin’s explosives went off prematurely. Thus was Bourdin thwarted in his unique attempt to “kill time.” The libretto of J. D. McClatchy follows Conrad’s spy story fairly closely, but incorporates elements of both Conrad’s original novel and a stage version that he subsequently made.

Since the plot of Conrad’s story is either already well-known to the reader of this review, or easily ascertainable from the Wikipedia article on Conrad’s book, I shall summarize it only briefly here. The secret agent is Adolf Verlac, a shifty sort who hides his spying activity behind the cover of a porn shop. He has been paid for some time by the German embassy to report on the activities of the various anarchist groups active in London, but is actually a double agent for the British government. The German ambassador approaches Verlac to shake the complacent British out of their apathy by setting off a bomb in the observatory. Verlac meets with a motley group of conspirators that he’s ingratiated himself to in order to spy on them. This meeting takes place in Verlac’s home, also shared with his wife Winnie’s mentally-challenged brother, Stevie. The latter becomes upset with the guests, and he is sent into the countryside to recuperate at the home of one of the conspirators.

The explosion at the observatory takes place, but causes no damage, as the bomber stumbles and prematurely sets off the explosives. His badly mangled body is recovered by the police, who find Verloc’s address sewn into the coat. The constables inform Verloc’s family and friends (but not the conspirators, who all believe that Verloc himself was the man who had been blown to bits) that he will be arrested because of this evidence, but Verloc informs the officials that the German ambassador is behind it all. When the ambassador arrives, the police gently ask him to accompany them to Scotland Yard. In the meantime, Inspector Heat arrives at Verloc’s home, and informs Winnie that he has found a label in the saboteur’s coat that identifies it to her as Stevie’s. Verloc himself arrives at that moment and, distraught, confesses that he was behind Stevie’s bungled bombing. After Heat leaves, Winnie turns on her husband and inflicts a fatal stabbing wound upon him. Comrade Ossipon, one of Verloc’s confederates infamous for preying upon vulnerable women, arrives and runs off with the funds that Verloc had withdrawn from his bank for Winnie, but is caught and carried away. Winnie is left at the end of the opera curled up in a corner, ruined and alone.

Michael Dellaira’s setting of this story is appropriately conceived in a rather melodramatic way. There are few sections that could be considered arias (Winnie’s lullaby to soothe Stevie is about as close as one gets). This is a dramatic story, though, and the declamation throughout is most appropriate to it. The composer confines his instrumental forces to a chamber ensemble, with what sound to be solo strings only in conjunction with selected winds and percussion. The sparse textures allow the words to be clearly projected throughout, which all of the singers do quite consistently. Stylistically, Dellaira continues the American operatic tradition of Douglas Moore, Jack Beeson, and Dominick Argento, albeit centered upon a slightly more astringent harmonic base than is typical in the music of those composers—but not a lot, a bit surprising in light of his studies with such avant-gardists as Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, and Franco Donatoni. Dellaira is clearly a master of setting texts to highlight and project the words so that they are understandable and dramatically effective. McClatchy aided in this by providing a libretto that was conducive to such setting, including sentences with good metrical flow (e.g., “They are determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation.”) Librettist and composer have effectively collaborated to produce a work that is dramatically well-paced, and one that never flags in interest. Dellaira has incorporated a number of clever musical devices into the structure. One of my favorites was the scene in the parlor of socialite Lady Mabel, in which a singer is caught in the middle of a performance of Schubert’s Der Erlkönig. Although only a few phrases of the song are heard intermittently, the composer extends the harmonies from this Lied throughout the scene, during which the main characters sing their non-Schubertian lines.

The Center for Contemporary Opera has assembled a good cast for this production. Every one of the singers brings good vocal declamation to the assigned role. A few of them are possessed of a slight metallic edge to their vocal production. Scott Bearden, who sings the title role, is one of them, but the effect is only evident when he sings at a forte level or above. But, lest I seem unduly negative, the opera succeeds on all levels, including the vocal ones.

Since this is a live performance (of the premiere), the listener will have to put up with a certain amount of stage noise, but it is rarely overtly distracting. The sound is well recorded, with good balance between soloists and ensemble, and the instrumentalists all play their parts accurately and musically, as far as I can judge without a score. This opera has had a number of performances by now in Europe, and I hope that we will hear it more in this country as well. Warmly recommended to enthusiasts of contemporary opera, and American music in general.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

The Secret Agent by Michael Dellaira
Performer:  Matthew Garrett (Tenor), Mark Zuckerman (Bass), Jodi Karem (Mezzo Soprano),
Jonathan Blalock (Tenor), Amy Burton (Soprano), Andrew Cummings (Baritone),
Scott Bearden (Baritone), David Neal (Bass Baritone), Deborah Lifton (Soprano),
Nathan Resika (Bass), Aaron Theno (Tenor), Matt Boehler (Bass Baritone)
Conductor:  Sara Jobin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Center for Contemporary Opera

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