Notes and Editorial Reviews
THE FAIR OPHELIA
, Andrea Chenoweth
(sop); Desiree Maira
, Kellie Van Horn
(mez); Justin Vickers (tn);
Chad Sloan (bar);
John McGinn (pn);
Miroslav Sekera (pn)
NAVONA 5935 (72:00
Text and Translation)
He Took Me By the Wrist.
They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier.
To My Sick Soul (Saint Valentine’s Day).
There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook.
La Mort d’Ophélie.
La Mort d’Ophélie.
Okay, I realize that no one buys CDs in order to read the program notes. So witty, erudite, and unconventional are these, however, that I could almost imagine doing so, even before taking into account the many musical reasons for acquiring this disc. There are multiple notes, actually, each viewing the program from a different perspective—although all of them are by Joseph Summer, for reasons explained therein—and in them Berlioz’s obsession and disillusionment with Harriet Smithson are tartly considered, the moral problem of Gertrude’s soliloquy on Ophelia’s death is examined, and the evidence against the young girl’s maidenhood weighed. Not incidentally, the author also makes more sense than I have previously encountered of Hamlet’s not-so-mad baiting of Polonius, and of Ophelia’s rather revealing ravings regarding the flora in Elsinore’s gardens. Summer also offers a very nice pun on John Cage’s name which I shall not spoil.
This is the second in a series of Navona discs documenting composer Summer’s long-running Boston area-based concert series,
The Shakespeare Concerts
. The first,
, was reviewed a bit over a year ago, in
36:4, as part of a feature on Summer’s life and work. This release, titled
The Fair Ophelia
, focuses on the comeliest victim of the machinations in Shakespeare’s Danish court. Unlike its predecessor, but like Summer’s concerts, it offers not only his music, but also analogous works by other composers. So, for Ophelia’s mad scene, we have the poignant, relatively unknown, posthumously published
of Brahms and the first three of the virtuosic
Lieder der Ophelia
of Richard Strauss to complement Summer’s two scenas,
They Bore Him Barefaced on the Bier
To My Sick Soul (Saint Valentine’s Day)
. There are, as well, settings of Ernest Legouvé’s
La Mort d’Ophélie
by Berlioz and Saint-Saëns, and Schumann’s
to companion the Bard’s description of Ophelia’s death in Summer’s
There Is a Willow Grows Aslant a Brook. He Took Me By the Wrist
, the last of Summer’s
settings included, interpolates additional of Polonius’s lines from other scenes into Ophelia’s act II, scene 1 description of Hamlet visiting her with “doublet all unbraced.” Inexplicably, the enhanced dialogue for Polonius, included in the provided text, is removed here, and only Ophelia sings. It works fine that way. In fact, as in the earlier releases, everything about these highly dramatic, exceedingly articulate settings of Shakespeare’s texts works brilliantly, and one’s appreciation for what Summer has achieved only grows with repeated hearings.
All of the works are performed by relatively young protégés of Summer, with whom he has worked intensively in preparation for the concert series, and all are highly accomplished artists. The non-Summer works are, of course, available in other recordings, by singers with more established names than Andrea Chenoweth or Kellie Van Horn. It would be pointless to pretend that any of these would be first choice, yet all are worthy performances and all serve well in the context of this program. The focus here, after all, is on Summer’s compositions.
Those works make up half of the time on the disc. The four scenes are written primarily as ariosos, with accompaniment that occasionally feels improvised, but which adds rhythmic impulse and comments upon the events unfolding. Primarily tonal, Summer’s music will not offend those who abhor atonality, though one occasionally has to wait a while for a resolution. These pieces are undoubtedly challenging to sing, and Kathryn Guthrie, the Ophelia in these excerpts, is notably fearless in the way she throws herself into the role. Desiree Maira (Gertrude), Justin Vickers (Laertes), and Chad Sloan (Claudius) are hardly less effective, and the ensemble work is impressive. Expert accompaniment is provided by emeritus series music director John McGinn in the non-Summer compositions and by Miroslav Sekera for those by Summer. McGinn also provides an engaging performance of John Cage’s
to round out the program.
The enhanced CD includes links to the already mentioned program notes, complete texts, photographs, scores, and other digital content. Printed texts are included, as well, and the online booklet can be downloaded. My only qualm involves the sound quality. There were two sessions, in Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA, recorded by the same engineer. The Summer works, all from the earlier session, are notably more reverberant than the others, though since the voices are equally present in all tracks, I find myself wondering—not for the first time when listening to a Navona release—if much of it has been added post-production. I preferred the somewhat drier acoustic of the previous Albany releases. The sound, however, is hardly enough to dampen an enthusiastic recommendation.
FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
Works on This Recording
Ophelia Songs, WoO 22 by Johannes Brahms
John McGinn (Piano),
Kellie Van Horn (Mezzo Soprano)
Written: 1873; Austria
La mort d'Ophélie by Camille Saint-Saëns
Andrea Chenoweth (Soprano),
John McGinn (Piano)
Written: circa 1857; France
Ophelia by John Cage
John McGinn (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1946; USA
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