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Deems Taylor: Peter Ibbetson / Schwarz, Seattle Symphony

Release Date: 07/28/2009 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8669016-17   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Joseph Deems Taylor
Performer:  Lauren FlaniganAnthony Dean GriffeyRichard Zeller
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 2 Hours 14 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

TAYLOR Peter Ibbetson Gerard Schwarz, cond; Anthony Dean Griffey ( Peter ); Lauren Flanagan ( Mary ); Richard Zeller ( Colonel Ibbetson ); Charles Robert Austin ( Major Duquesnois/Chaplain ); Lauri Summers ( Mrs. Deane ); Seattle S & Ch NAXOS Read more 8.669016 (2 CDs: 134:18) Live: Seattle 4/29–5/1/1999

America does not have an inferiority complex about its opera output. Truth to tell, it has had an inferior output. Native composers had very little success producing a school—or even many examples—of a robust American style of opera. (Musical theater is another story, and one that is now finding its way into the opera house.) There have been any number of works on European models, with varying quality, but with just a couple of notable exceptions, only the last half century has seen a number of compellingly original American voices. It was not for the lack of looking. Among the most notable efforts were the series of contests and commissions by the Metropolitan Opera under Italian impresario Giulio Gatti-Casazza in the first decades of the last century. This was, of course, a period when new operas were as important to an opera house as the established classics—maybe more so—and the dynamic master of the Met was determined to find new American operas for his revitalized American company. Among the Metropolitan Opera premieres were four vehicles for his stars, especially the magisterial voice and superb acting of Lawrence Tibbett: Deems Taylor’s The Kings Henchmen , Louis Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones , Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount , and this opera, Deems Taylor’s second Met commission. The story of its success is often told: 22 performances in four seasons (1931–1936), 36 curtain calls at its premiere, audience in tears, and $150,000 in profits that helped keep the Metropolitan Opera afloat during the depression. The critical reaction was more equivocal. Many pointed out that the work, based on a Victorian novel by the French-born, English-based illustrator-turned-novelist George du Maurier, inspired by his nostalgic longing for life in pre-imperial Paris, was hardly American. What is more, there was nothing identifiably American in the music, the score being a generally effective but clearly derivative blend of Lehár, Massenet, Puccini, and Wagner. Taylor, the erudite commentator on all things musical, knew how to construct a drama for the lyric stage, but he had no particular compositional voice of his own. Unlike The Emperor Jones , with Gruenberg’s unlikely combination of jazz, spirituals, and German expressionist techniques, Peter Ibbetson broke no new ground.

Further, stage savvy as Taylor’s creation may be—the issue of original American opera aside for now—and as much as one may support the recording of neglected works, how one responds to this piece may well depend on one’s tolerance for the maudlin. Many operas are sentimental, and I am as susceptible as the next guy—I get choked-up at the end of a good performance of La bohème and get sucked into the high melodrama of Vanessa by Barber’s glorious music—but when I listen to Mary and Peter’s Wagnerian apotheosis, I see fly-specked Victorian lithographs with the heavens opening and fat cherubs flitting on little wings. I can’t get past it. Those less sensitive to the overwrought may be able to appreciate the artistry of this ending better. Other parts are more easily esteemed. The taut setup of the conflict in act I, as well as the lovely Viennese-operetta waltz, is first-rate. The Puccinian romanticism of the Parisian encounter between Peter and Mary is touching and beautifully paced. The prelude to the prison scene and the scene with the chaplain owe much to Tosca , but are effective. But the dream sequences—lovely as they are in their perfumed French sentimentality—flit dangerously close to the cloying and the final death scene. Enough said.

This performance was recorded 10 years ago in 1999. Why it took so long to get to disc is not explained, though the 1996 Merry Mount production by the same forces took even longer to be published. The cast is very fine. Anthony Dean Griffey in particular excels at portraying the ardent Peter, though Lauren Flanagan is hardly less effective as his dream girl, Mary. Their voices blend beautifully, his lighter than it is now, but wonderfully expressive and hers bright, even, and emotion-laden, with only a touch of the vibrato-obscured diction that occurs in her current singing at full volume. Baritone Richard Zeller is competing with the ghost of Tibbett, though the assignment is less trying than it was in Merry Mount , where the baritone role so dominates the work. The ghost is not banished here, but Zeller makes much of a less commanding instrument and temperament, producing a villain who is properly repulsive without being caricatured. Charles Robert Austin creates the touchingly aged Major Duquesnois with great dignity, and is a sympathetic chaplain. Lauri Summers is a warmly compassionate Mrs. Deane. The smaller roles are well taken.

The Seattle Symphony is first-rate and the chorus is impressive, with only a couple of tentative moments for the tenors at exposed moments. The Met premiere was conducted by a giant of the podium, Tullio Serafin, who led the work with a sweep—and, where appropriate, restraint—that Gerard Schwarz’s very fine performance doesn’t quite match. The difference isn’t enough, in any case, to change my overall impressions, though if I listen to the work again, it will likely be through the restricted sound and surface noise of the Immortal Performances transfer (236) of the 1934 broadcast. Those wishing the work in modern sound will not, caveats noted, be disappointed by this excellent Naxos release. A libretto is not included, but is available as a download from Naxos with a translation of the French sections of act II.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Peter Ibbetson by Joseph Deems Taylor
Performer:  Lauren Flanigan (Soprano), Anthony Dean Griffey (Tenor), Richard Zeller (Baritone)
Conductor:  Gerard Schwarz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: USA 
Notes: Additional cast members on this disc include bass Charles Robert Austin, sopranos Terri Richter and Erin Clark, mezzo-sopranos Lori Summers, Emily Lunde, and Carolyn Gronlund, tenor Paul Gudas, baritone Barry Johnson, and bass Eugene Buchholz.  

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