Thomson: The Mother Of Us All / Raymond Leppard, Mignon Dunn

Release Date: 12/8/1992
Catalog Number: 80288
Composer: Virgil Thomson
Conductor: Raymond Leppard
Number of Discs: 1

Physical Format:

Notes and Editorial Reviews
Thomson's second opera was originally released on New World in the USA in 1977, although the orchestral suite had been recorded three times before that. The Mother of us all is more immediately successful on record than Four Saints in Three Acts, which was issued complete by Nonesuch in 1982 (not generally available in the UK) after being recorded only in abridged form for over 40 years. Four Saints is more repetitive and abstract, whereas The Mother of us all has a fashionable cause and, near enough, a plot. In fact this opera, so characteristic of both Thomson and his librettist, Gertrude Stein, is more likely than anything else to augment Thomson's audience outside the USA.

The opera's cause is women's suffrage and its heroine the historic pioneer Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), who lived long enough to see some American states grant women the vote. She is the factual part of the libretto, but the opera is also rich in fantasy. Even the composer, his librettist and her literary executor are included as characters and people from different periods who never actually met encounter each other on stage. This is all fairly normal within the studied abnormality of Gertrude Stein whose writing profoundly affected Thomson so that his music is in many ways a precise counterpart of her literary innovations.

Unlike Douglas Moore's Carry Nation (see page 275), another CD reissue of an American opera about a militant woman, The Mother of us all is a modern recording and has transferred well to CD. The cast was based on the Santa Fe Opera production of 1976 conducted by Raymond Leppard, who came fresh from his exploits in Monteverdi and Cavalli. That experience cannot have been wasted on the Thomson opera, equally concerned with delivering text audibly, pacing varied textures and balancing the changes from arioso to recitative.

What has altered since then is that opera audiences in many parts of the world have succumbed to non-narrative opera, whether Philip Glass, Harrison Birtwistle or John Adams. Thomson, with Four Saints in 1934, and The Mother in 1947, is the ancestor of the American part of this process and by comparison with Glass's latest seems generously inventive. Alongside the serious topic of women's lib in days when such ideas were embryonic at best, there are witty asides arising from both text and context. In waltz time the character John Adams (what prophetic anticipation!) explains: ''I never marry. I have been twice divorced but I have never married''.

Major roles are sung by Mignon Dunn, Philip Booth (magisterial but straining a bit at the top as Daniel Webster), and James Atherton (who is engaging) in a well-balanced team with no weak links. There are times when ensemble is not as clean as it should be but the overall impact of the performance is utterly authentic and convincing. Apart from ''London Bridge is falling down'', all the tunes are supposed to be original, but they are so close to various diatonic types, ranging from hymns to Viennese waltzes, that they soon become really catchy. The whole of the First Act sparkles with invention and it is only towards the end of the Second Act that Thomson's technique seems to freewheel into final sad reminiscences with the Wedding Hymn possibly overdone.

The original New World LPs were issued in a double sleeve, as usual replete with documentation. It has not been possible to get all this on to a CD booklet but you are invited to apply for it. (Neither, apparently, was it possible to bring artists' biographies up to date.) This detail could only enhance a most enjoyable and unusual operatic release which serves to whet one's appetite for Thomson's last opera, Lord Byron (1972).

-- Peter Dickinson, Gramophone [7/1990]
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