Notes and Editorial Reviews
A masterpiece. If you enter Van de Vate's sound world with an open mind and heart, you will find yourself drawn in—and you will stay there until the very end.
Van de Vate Where the Cross Is Made • Karyl Carlson, cond; Christopher Hollingsworth (Nat Bartlett); Clinton Desmond (Dr. Higgins); Michelle Vought (Sue Bartlett); Timothy Schmidt (Capt. Isaiah Bartlett); Illinois St Univ Op Theatre • VIENNA MODERN MASTERS 4006 (59:44 Text and Translation)
No one ever said life was fair, and this is probably truer in the arts field, where name recognition and assessment of quality are engendered more by promotion and institutional affiliation than by talent. A case in point is Nancy Van de Vate, without question one
of the most talented and sheerly original composers of our time, whose name is barely known in this country though she is extremely well respected in her adopted country of Austria.
The composer of a wide gamut of pieces, ranging from the tone-clusterish orchestral works Journeys and Dark Nebulae, remarkable chamber works such as Seven Fantasy Pieces for Violin and Piano and Music for Viola, Percussion, and Piano, a number of concertos and the superb opera All Quiet on the Western Front, Van de Vate wrote Where the Cross Is Made during a time in her life when she was facing a personal crisis. She was distraught but felt the need to work in order to feel normal, and so she kept returning to the score over a period of time, reworking it as she had time, not really knowing whether the finished product would be as good as she hoped or not.
Remarkably, Cross is a masterpiece, building in rhythm, harmony, and melody through an almost unbroken wave of sound initiated by a syncopated figure, propelling the opera to its inexorable conclusion. The plot, based on a Eugene O’Neill play, concerns the efforts of Nat Bartlett to get his sea-captain father, Isaiah, committed to an asylum. Isaiah, who had been captain of the Mary Allen, lost his ship at sea seven years ago, yet he persists on sitting in his attic-room suite, which he has fixed up like a captain’s cabin, waiting for the ship to dock so he can go to sea again to look for a treasure buried “where the cross is made.” Sadly, the Mary Allen sank at sea, along with its crew but not its captain. Nat, who had been dragged from school to follow his father on board ship as an apprentice (on an earlier voyage), lost an arm at sea and with it, apparently, most of his patience.
As the opera opens, Nat is trying to convince Dr. Higgins to have his father committed, explaining the situation to him. The doctor readily agrees, but after he leaves, Nat’s sister Sue comes forth to argue with him that what he is doing is cruel and unnecessary. At a crucial moment, the old man himself descends the stairway, calls Nat up to witness the “arrival” of the Mary Allen. Nat, angry, rebukes Sue for her patronizing attitude towards their father’s mania, then climbs the stairs to his “cabin” as a witness to madness. Astonishingly, Nat “sees” his father’s old crew arise from the floor as wraiths or specters, and thus becomes convinced that his father was right.
Van de Vate builds her scenes in an almost unbroken line from start to finish, using as a basis the harmonic language (and orchestral techniques) borrowed from Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten, but adapted to her own very personal style which is more angular than Britten’s (though no less lyric). She possesses the same audacity in creating emotional soundscapes through simple yet effective building blocks of sound: the rocking 6/8 rhythm of the Prelude, for instance. At the line “Without light, they become dreams of his, dreams,” the music enters an eerie, atonal realm on the repeat of the word “dreams,” dominated by celesta and high strings. Variations of this motif return each time the word is sung again; eventually, the “dreams” motif is distorted for the word “madness.” When Nat describes himself as “the broken thing I am,” the music breaks up behind him in syncopated drum figures.
By describing the mechanics of the music, however, one is still surprised and delighted by an audition of the complete score. She uses a full orchestra, but does so with discretion, delicacy, and taste. Aria, arioso, sung recitative, and duet flow seamlessly into each other and build upon each other musically and dramatically. Despite its melodic content, the score is still lyrical; despite its lyricism, it is dramatic. Unlike so many of her male competitors, she does not write sugary arias in the midst of bitonality merely to draw the more conventional-minded and less adventurous listener in, yet the music is never forbidding or cold. An auditor weaned on Barber, Britten, and similar composers will not be put off by Where the Cross Is Made, but the score avoids the banality of later Barber. Despite her deft use of effects, it is not a work that dwells on or insists on them. The music “follows” the words, like the best Lieder. The arias in this work are dovetailed seamlessly, as they are in late Verdi or (perhaps a better comparison) Debussy. If you enter her sound world with an open mind and heart, you will find yourself drawn in—and you will stay there until the very end.
Pride of place, vocally and dramatically, goes to tenor Christopher Hollingsworth as Nat. In addition to having a fine voice, he has superb diction and a keen dramatic sense. In his hands, Nat comes to life; Hollingsworth virtually becomes him for the duration of the performance. Soprano Michelle Vought, as Sue, has a distinct, bright-dark timbre that takes some getting used to and her diction is not as clear, but she, too, presents a fine characterization. In one scene (track 13), she sings a superb high C, perfectly blended into the words and the music, that marks her as a musician of unusual intelligence. Baritone Timothy Schmidt, as the old captain, has an infirm voice with neither the vocal nor dramatic weight for his role. Tenor Clinton Desmond, as Dr. Higgins, is a fine character tenor; his detached, somewhat bemused delivery works perfectly in the role. The Illinois State University Chamber Orchestra plays decently but with insufficient dramatic bite at times under the emotionally detached conductor Karyl Carlson.
All in all, however, a superb piece of music. Since you’re probably not going to hear it at an opera house near you, you might as well obtain it.
-- Lynn René Bayley, Fanfare [1/2008]
Works on This Recording
Where the Cross Is Made by Nancy Van De Vate
Clinton Desmond (Tenor),
Christopher Hollingsworth (Tenor),
Michelle Vought (Soprano),
Timothy Schmidt (Bass)
Illinois State University Opera Theater Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Where the Cross is Made: Prelude
Where the Cross is Made: Can you see, Doctor? (Nat, Dr. Higgins)
Where the Cross is Made: There are cases where facts ... (Nat, Dr. Higgins)
Where the Cross is Made: But what of the other three? (Nat, Sue, Dr. Higgins)
Where the Cross is Made: And now, Doctor, the dream (Nat, Dr. Higgins)
Where the Cross is Made: Interlude
Where the Cross is Made: Nat? Nat? Nat! (Sue, Nat)
Where the Cross is Made: Oh Nat, please let's go away from here (Sue, Nat)
Where the Cross is Made: Listen Sue! For God's sake ... (Nat, Sue)
Where the Cross is Made: Aah! Ho! (Captain Bartlett, Nat, Sue)
Where the Cross is Made: You see! I told you my ship ... (Captain Bartlett, Nat, Sue)
Where the Cross is Made: Come in lads, come! (Captain Bartlett, Nat, Sue)
Where the Cross is Made: The Mary Allen is home again ... (Captain Bartlett, Nat, Sue)
Where the Cross is Made: Here, Bartlett, let me try it (Dr. Higgins, Nat)
Where the Cross is Made: I'm sorry, I am so very sorry (Dr. Higgins, Sue, Nat)
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