KARCHIN Romulus • Louis Karchin, cond; Washington Square Ens; Kristina Thurman (Martha); Steven Ebel (Frantz Wolf); Thomas Meglioranza (Celestus); Wilbur Pauley (Mayor Babelhausen) • NAXOS 8.6609030 (72:25 Text and Translation)
I’ve knownRead more Lois Karchin’s (b.1951) work for a long time now; I even wrote a journal article about him sometime in the late ’80s. Of all the composers in my generation who I know associated with what used to be called “Uptown” (New York late/post-serial modernism), he’s always struck me as the most natural and non-dogmatically musical. He proclaims an admiration for and influence of Charles Wuorinen, whose fluency is near-terrifying, and who has himself become a far more stylistically wide-ranging composer of late, though never forsaking his core principles. As an aside, I found Wuorinen’s turn curating this last summer’s Tanglewood Contemporary Music Festival to be a success, far more catholic and substantive than most would have imagined. He strikes me a bit like Boulez, a youthful firebrand who’s mellowed enough with age to see worth in a broader range of musics.
But back to Karchin! His music has always had a strong harmonic component that feels fresh, varied, and allows genuine motion, tension, and release (in this sense he reminds me of another composer I feel deserves more continued attention postmortem, George Perle). All this is in evidence in this one-act chamber opera, based on a play by Alexander Dumas (père), translated by Barnett Shaw. It’s taken about two decades for Romulus (1990) to reach disc, but it’s worth the wait.
The story is a gentle farce, featuring two absent-minded bachelors, one a philosopher (Wolf), the other an astronomer (Celestus), their housekeeper Martha (Celestus’s sister), and a bumbling busybody of a mayor (Babelhausen). The appearance of a baby in a basket upsets their household, and suspicions of paternity almost wreck their carefully constructed relationships, until something of a deus ex machina revelation (albeit well-enough prepared) allows everything to be corrected, and the characters can move to a higher level of love and maturity.
Karchin’s music is distinguished by the aforementioned harmonic clarity, and is enhanced by a truly glittering orchestration, which gets great variety and sonority from an 11-piece chamber orchestra. It sparkles, but it never gets precious in its beauty. The vocal writing is similarly direct and clear. Like most composers of his taste and generation, Karchin doesn’t tend to write set-piece arias that might be stand-alone songs, but neither does he write the sort of gray perpetual recitative that makes so much contemporary opera dreary. The music crackles along, and the text setting always seems appropriate to the quickly changing action. It’s an interpretive approach that reflects a close, moment-by-moment reading of the thoughts and emotions of the characters. It also is quite wonderful vocally (and this also is a result of excellent performers) in that it’s almost possible to make out the entire text without aid of a libretto. (Which unusually for Naxos, is actually in the booklet and not just online.)
The piece loses a tiny bit of momentum for me near its two-thirds mark, but never enough to cause a serious energy dip, and it concludes with a genuine full cadence that doesn’t sound fake; rather it seems like a final, teasing joke in the high intellectual spirit of the two bachelors. Overall, I find it a real contribution to the tradition of short comic opera, a repertoire that is all too neglected in comparison to the grand and often bloated neo-Hollywood spectacles foisted on us nowadays. The performance (conducted by the composer) radiates wit and energy, both vocally and instrumentally. Bravo to all involved.