Notes and Editorial Reviews
Pope Joan. Transfiguration
Mark Menzies, cond; Kristin Nordeval (sop); Dorothy Stone (pic); Keve Wilson (ob); Keve Wilson (Eh); Jim Sullivan (cl); Nicholas Terry (perc); Eric Clark (vn); Andrew McIntosh (va); Erica Duke-Kirkpatrick (vc); Jim Sullivan (bs cl); Dorothy Stone (alto fl); Lorna Eder (pn); Rand Steiger, cond;
Lucy Shelton (sop);
June Han (hp);
William Trigg (perc);
Camilla Hoitenga (fl)
NEW WORLD 80663 (70:30
Text and Translation)
In May 2006 at the New York City Opera I heard an extended excerpt from an opera-in-progress,
, by Anne LeBaron (b. 1953). It was a surreal and apocalyptic portrait of post-Katrina New Orleans, and I thought it wild, brave, and unbuttoned, mixing everything from blues to
The two works on this release are similarly theatrical, though on a smaller scale (at least in the forces involved).
(2000) is a dance opera based on the story of a 9th-century nun who disguised her gender to the point that she was named pope. Her deception was uncovered only when she delivered a baby during a papal procession, leading to her resultant death by stoning (the historical accuracy of this remains controversial, but at the very least it is a compelling myth for the present age). The texts are contemporary poems by Enid Shomer that emphasize the feminist aspects of the story, and its five movements last over 40 minutes.
(2003) is a more traditional avant-garde work for soprano and flutes, harp, and percussion, lasting a half hour. Using a poem by Djuna Barnes, it’s concerned with inversions, or “what ifs,” where seemingly irreversible and catastrophic actions move to opposite results from the usual. LeBaron uses the text as a sort of inexhaustible well, dipping into it in spots, reordering it, interlacing it with texts ranging from Picasso to Dante to the Bible. Its internal structures are intricate and constantly shifting; it’s a chewy piece that only reveals its mysteries on repeated encounters.
In both works there is a lot of additional input from the instrumentalists, who at times sing, play additional percussion instruments, or enlarge their own instruments’ palettes through extended techniques.
’s language is more stylistically consistent and it’s formally tighter;
is a wilder ride, more polystylistic. LeBaron has two obvious gifts: (1) her vocal writing, while firmly within the modernist tradition, has a genuine lyricism that suits the voice well; and (2) She can write music that evokes more popular tropes while keeping it fresh and relevant to the musical point at hand.
is particularly good at this, as it evokes medieval music (sacred, as in the ecstatic chant of Hildegard, and earthy—secular songs and dances)
more raucous funk, somehow convincing us these all exist in the same world. This is perhaps a fruit of her Louisiana roots, where so many different musical traditions blend and ferment into distinctive brews.
My caveat is that the music sometimes seems to go on too long, and starts and stops in a way that reduces its momentum. The textures can seem thinner than the material demands, as though these pieces are really aching to be orchestral in sound and scope. This is more the case with
, itself a more abstract work than
. The latter feels like a descendent of Peter Maxwell Davies’s
Eight Songs for a Mad King
, but the vocal writing is more traditionally classical, and doesn’t go over the top like that earlier work. But I have a hunch that it should be experienced in a DVD format rather than only as a recording, since I think a lot of what makes LeBaron’s music distinctive is its quite personal take on music-theater practice. Unusual actions fill in a lot of the sonic gaps, I suspect, in a way that probably justifies them, rather than leaving a listener feeling as though something’s missing. So I’d like to
this music as well as hear it. I say this precisely because I was particularly impressed by the bubbling gumbo of the piece mentioned at the start of this review.
The performances seem great. The sound, while extremely clear and well rounded is closely miked, contributing to the textural thinness I allude to above. LeBaron’s is a strong and adventurous voice, and I’ll look forward to experiencing more of it. Similarly adventurous listeners should check this out, but realize it may only be a portion of the experience.
FANFARE: Robert Carl