Notes and Editorial Reviews
Michael Berkeley (b. 1948) is the composing son of Sir Lennox Berkeley, and Chandos has been producing a series of discs with music by father and son. This, however, is my introduction to the music of Michael; I can report it is pretty much an unalloyed pleasure. Baa Baa Black Sheep is the composer’s first opera and the recording derives from, I am guessing, the second run of performances following the premiere in July of 1993. Chandos is reissuing the recording following the demise of Collins Classics.
Baa Baa Black Sheep layers excerpts from The Jungle Book with Rudyard Kipling’s short story, Baa Baa Black Sheep, which in turn was based on Kipling’s horrific childhood experiences at the hands of the woman he knew as Aunty
Rosa. Kipling was born in India during the Raj. His parents sent the boy and his sister to stay with relatives in England in order to make them properly English. Aside from the inherent wrench of being separated from their parents, the children had to suffer the fact that their Aunty Rosa turned out to be a religious fanatic who took a deep and abiding dislike of the boy, called Punch in the story and the opera. In an effort to “reform” him, aided and abetted by her thuggish son, she tortured the boy in episodes worthy of Dickens. The outcome was a retreat into a fantasy world that produced the seeds of what would become The Jungle Book. David Malouf’s libretto uses the children’s journey to England as a framework; as the boy retreats into himself, the people of his life become the characters of The Jungle Book. The parallels are not quite exact, but sufficiently close that no one who is a villain in the human world is benign in the animal one, or vice versa. The layering of realities is close to seamless, and I think it would be fascinating to see on stage.
Berkeley’s music is extravagantly colorful. Recent reviews have suggested that, at least of late, his music has become a somewhat superficial exploration of orchestral color. Never having heard any of it before, I could not say where the opera falls in the scheme of things, but on its own it is wonderfully effective in creating the dangerous world of India which permeates the action. There is a strong tonal slant to the melodies, which means that an audience would recognize this as opera in the traditional sense rather than “modern music.” His text setting is very fine, more conventional for the scenes set in England. He uses a variety of ornamental vocal techniques for the animal scenes, which differentiates them well while allowing them to remain within the overall world of the opera. I question a couple of the composer’s choices in how he doubles roles. Punch is portrayed by a boy treble, almost always a dicey proposition, and Berkeley cuts the boy no slack whatsoever in terms of either the orchestra or the voices he has to compete with. This makes the boy less of a presence in the early scenes of act I than he really should be dramatically. In the jungle scenes, Mowgli rapidly matures into a baritone, which again cuts down the identification with Punch, who remains sung by a child throughout the opera. The other bit of doubling that doesn’t work especially well is Auntirosa with the hunter Baldero, who is a man. Baldero does not appear until very late in the second act, and this doubling is the first time we have transgender casting in the piece, so it seems overly odd.
Those reservations aside, the cast is marvelous top to bottom. Everyone sings extremely well, with remarkably clear diction, especially given the difficulty of some of the musical lines. The orchestra and chorus completely belie their status as provincial organizations. The recording, while obviously live, captures the wide range of color and dynamic coming from the stage. James North, in particular, has written eloquently about the rarity of a new opera that seems to have legs. It seems to me that this is one of them. If you missed the original Collins issue, don’t make that mistake again.
-- John Story, FANFARE [9/2004] Read less
Works on This Recording
Baa baa black sheep by Michael Berkeley
Mark Holland (Bass Baritone),
William Dazeley (Baritone),
Ann [Mezzo Soprano] Taylor (Mezzo Soprano),
Henry Newman (Bass Baritone),
Malcolm Lorimer (Treble),
George Mosley (Baritone),
Fiona Kimm (Alto),
Eileen Hulse (Soprano),
Philip Sheffield (Tenor),
Clive Bayley (Bass Baritone),
Brian Cookson (Tenor),
Paul McCann (Tenor)
English Northern Philharmonia,
Opera North Chorus
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1993; England
Be the first to review this title