Virgil Thomson's precise, formal music did not destine him for the role of opera composer, but his style fit so perfectly with Gertrude Stein's chanting, repetitive verse that Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of Us All emerged as wonderful expressions of fantasy. The results were far more than the sum of their words and music; such meetings make great operas, lacking the genius of a Britten or a Janá?ek. Playwright and poet Jack Larson's verse libretto for Lord Byron is imaginative and clever, but it lacks Stein's innate musicality. Thomson was rightly regarded as a master word-setter, and he never asked Larson to rewrite to his music; but the cadence of Thomson's music is often at odds with cadences of Larson's poetry. TheRead more opera moves along, in some places lumbering awkwardly as if depicting Byron's club foot, and elsewhere producing sparks of beauty in the manner of his poetry.
The opera opens in 1824, with the people of London singing “Byron is dead.“ Inside Westminster Abbey, the ghosts of England's great poets prepare to welcome Byron as their peer. The poet's wife, sister, best friends, and publisher gather outside, to mourn his death and shepherd his admission to Poet's Corner. Their worries of protecting his reputation from scandal are brought to a head by disclosure of the existence of a manuscript: his autobiography. Byron's ghost enters, singing of nostalgia for the once-hated England he abandoned seven years before. In several flashbacks, we learn of Byron's life: tormented since birth by his club foot, he became a Don Juan. All seven women in the cast have been his lovers; he has even gotten his married sister pregnant: “I was born damned—with my twisted foot.“ To elude scandal, he marries an upright young lady who wishes to reform him; but further amorous dalliance with his sister brings on a family crisis, which includes revelation of a homosexual affair as well, and leads to Byron's leaving England for good. Back at the Abbey, his friends burn his memoirs, but the Dean refuses him admission on grounds of “mockery, horrors, impiety, sedition, slander, profligacy, obscenity, blasphemy.“ The living disperse, and the dead poets, now joined by the recently deceased Shelley, welcome Byron among them, as he sings his credo, demanding forgiveness by and for the world.
Written throughout the 1960s, to a Metropolitan Opera commission, Lord Byron was eventually premiered by the Juilliard School in 1972. It is only a slight simplification to state that the Juilliard performance was cut and that this recording represents the full score; as with any new opera, there is extra material available, so alternate versions are possible. The central scenes— Byron's life with his mistresses and friends, his sister, and his wife—are human and moving, capturing something of the emotions of all involved. The scenes at the Abbey are less effective, being mostly sung discussions of the problem at hand, although the finale has hints of glory not realized in this production. The libretto incorporates lines of Byron's poetry; such brief excerpts seldom capture the essence of the poet's high style, but they do add tone to the opera.
Performance and recording are both closely tied to the acoustics of the site. The auditorium was tiny, and its all-wood surfaces absorbed nothing. A large ensemble crowded a small stage; with no pit, the orchestra—burdened by a large percussion section—spread into the audience. The cast sang out as if they were in the Metropolitan Opera House; to these ears, much was cacophony. That producer/engineer Michael Fine has created listenable music from those proceedings is a near miracle, but the acoustics do plague the results. The sound is dry and boxy yet reverberant, an odd combination. Perhaps there was no other way to do the music: a fortissimo cannot be sung piano without altering the character of the music, no matter the acoustics of the space. Perhaps rehearsals had been elsewhere, and the second performance (which I did not hear) was toned down a bit.
Matthew Lord has a fresh, youthful-sounding tenor appropriate for Lord Byron; he has momentary pitch problems at a couple of entrances. Jeanne Ommerlé has a lovely light soprano with silky top which conquers the acoustics. D'Anna Fortunato's mezzo is the voice of reason among the principals, as her Lady Byron is in the story; this made her a standout at the performance but makes her seem weaker on the recording. The other principals sing well enough and are captured intelligibly, but this opera is filled with little duets, trios, and ensembles, for which one must keep one's nose in the provided libretto. Supporting singers are not very reliable and contribute several off-pitch moments. The orchestra plays spiritedly, but it too suffers from the boxy recording, and moments of loud percussion blast all else.
So this performance and first recording, like the opera itself, are noble enterprises plagued by contradictions and inconsistencies—how very Byronic! Small slips include Koch's usual erroneous timing and no credit for the part of Shelley. I will treasure these discs nevertheless: one gets used to the faults, and the opera's charm grows.
Lord Byronby Virgil Thomson Performer:
Jeanne Ommerlé (Soprano),
Richard Zeller (Baritone),
Matthew Lord (Tenor),
D'Anna Fortunato (Mezzo Soprano)
Monadnock Festival Orchestra,
Monadnock Festival Chorus
Period: 20th Century Written: 1961-1968; USA Date of Recording: 08/31-09/02/1991 Venue: Wilton, New Hampshire Length: 118 Minutes 0 Secs. Language: English
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