Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett


Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Edward THOMAS (b.1924)
Desire Under the Elms - An American Folk Opera in Three Acts based on a Play by Eugene O'Neill (1970-74) [125.50]
Libretto: Joe Masteroff
Eben - Jerry Hadley
Cabot - James Morris
Abbie - Victoria Livengood
Simeon - Mel Ulrich
Peter - Jeffrey Lentz
Sheriff - Darth Meadows
London Symphony Orchestra/George Manahan
rec. Abbey Road Studios, London, July 2000, KAS Music and Sound, New York, Sept 2000, Jan-June 2002 DDD

Edward Thomas is a very experienced composer who, it seems, is equally at home in the classical domain or with lighter music. Readers wishing to know more about his varied background are referred to the earlier review of this set by my colleague, Rob Barnett. What is especially evident from this recording is that Thomas has a very sure dramatic and theatrical touch and that he is a most effective orchestrator.

Rob Barnettís review also usefully draws attention to several other operas that can be used as points of reference to Thomasí work. I particularly agree with him that Coplandís The Tender Land is in many ways comparable (I hope that EMI will reissue Phillip Brunelleís excellent complete recording, originally issued by Virgin.) To his list of comparisons Iíd add one more in the shape of Carlisle Floydís Susannah (thereís a first class recording, also on Virgin, if you can still get it, where, coincidentally, the tenor lead is also sung by Jerry Hadley.) It seems to me that what Floyd and Thomas offer, very successfully, is what Iíd term American verismo.

The action of the opera takes place on a farm owned by Ephraim Cabot. Though the location is not specified, in a brief accompanying note the critic, Patrick J. Smith eloquently describes Eugene OíNeillís original stage play, premiered in 1924, as an "Old Testament story of rage and lust in the stony implacable precincts of hardscrabble New England." Cabot is the 76-year old patriarch, well described by Rob Barnett as "flinty and avaricious". He has three sons. Simeon and Peter are the products of his first marriage while Eben is the son of Cabotís second wife. Illogically Cabot seems incapable of thinking of passing the farm to anyone on his demise.

At the start of the opera Cabot has been away from the farm for a long time, leaving the sons to work the spread. Eben covets the farm and as the action begins he persuades his stepbrothers to surrender their claims on it to him in return for $300 each in cash, money he has stolen from Cabotís horde. As his stepsiblings depart to seek their fortunes Cabot returns, accompanied by a new, young wife, Abbie, who is described in the scenario as "vital, sensuous, desperate." It is clear from the outset that she too has designs on the farm for the future security it can give her. Inevitably, Eben resents her presence but, despite themselves, the two fall in love in the second act. When the third act opens, the following spring, Abbie has had the baby son desired by Cabot. Inevitably, however, the baby turns out to be Ebenís (though Cabot is unaware of this until it is far too late.) To prevent the baby inheriting the farm and thereby coming between her and Eben Abbie kills her baby but when she confesses her crime to Eben he is appalled and calls the sheriff. By the time the forces of law and order arrive, however, he has had a change of heart and, forgiving Abbie, falsely confesses that he was complicit in the infanticide so that he is taken away to share her fate.

This is all pretty strong stuff and the drama is well conveyed through Edward Thomasís music. He writes in an entirely tonal and very accessible style. For the most part the music is through composed and almost conversational in style. Much of the music in the second and third acts is searingly dramatic and the temperature of the music is high. To carry off such music with conviction requires principal singers of high quality and thatís exactly what we have here.

Jerry Hadley is ideal for this kind of role and he sings with passion and feeling. Just occasionally I thought his very topmost notes sounded slightly strained but he uses his appealing and ringing voice intelligently and gives a most convincing dramatic portrayal. The soprano, Victoria Livengood, is a singer Iíve not heard before but I was very impressed with her contribution. She has a strong, clear voice with ample histrionic power. Yet, though for the most part hers is a spirited portrayal (as required by the score) she can also sing with disarming vulnerability, as in the lullaby she sings to her baby in Act 3, scene 1 (CD 2, track 2, from 7í07").

Livengood and Hadley make very distinguished contributions but, for me, the star of the show is James Morris. To have one of the leading Wagnerian baritones of his generation is luxury casting indeed and his performance is quite superb. He is strong and believable. For the most part his is a dark role but just occasionally a more sympathetic side to the character emerges, such as in Act 2, scene 1 where he sings to Abbie "You be my lawful wife" (CD1, track 4, from 10í09") with something approaching tenderness. For the most part, however, he is called on to be gruff and rather unpleasant and he rises to the occasion splendidly. In the big scene between Cabot and Eben in Act 3, scene 1 Morris and Hadley strike sparks off each other in an electrifying confrontation (CD 2, track 2 from 11í49")

I ought to say that the diction of all three principals is consistently excellent (as is that of all the cast) and though Naxos provide the full libretto (in English only) it is scarcely necessary for every word is audible.

The whole performance is purposeful and dramatically paced and this, I am sure, is due to the long association with the score of conductor George Manahan. Though Manahan was not in charge when the work was first heard in 1978 he first conducted it four years later and he was obviously a natural choice to direct the proceedings. The orchestration is full and colourfully resourceful but the band never overwhelms the singers. The score is expertly played by the LSO who are making their first appearance on Naxos, I think, other than in an historic recording. Iím sure that the composer, who supervised the recoding, must have been thrilled by all the singing and playing.

Thomas Z. Shepard who was a leading light at CBS/Sony in the days when that label could be considered a serious player in the classical market produces the recording. Writing in the booklet he avers "to the best of our abilities, we have not cut a single corner in our efforts to get the best out of our cast and crew." Iíd not only support that contention but also say that it applies to the overall production, the values of which are very high. A complete libretto is included together with a synopsis, three essays about the work (including a note by the composer), and artist biographies with photographs. Frankly, this set could be sold at full price and no one could complain. My only minuscule criticism is that youíll need to hit your "pause" button pretty quickly after each act, as the gaps between the acts are very short.

Where does Desire Under the Elms stand in relation to other American operas? Let me court controversy by suggesting that to date there has only been one truly great American opera. Despite the subsequent efforts of such luminaries as Barber, Copland, Virgil Thomson and others, no American composer has yet matched the achievement of Porgy and Bess. I donít think Edward Thomas has written the second great American opera, either. However, he has produced a very fine, well-crafted and theatrical work. Furthermore, I sense in the music that this is a work that had to be written. Itís evident from Thomasís comments that the subject mattered to him very much and that it gripped his imagination. Sadly, I suspect that a production is unlikely in the UK. For now, however, these well-produced CDs will fill the gap and will bring Edward Thomasís work to the wider audience it deserves.

This is yet another enterprising Naxos issue. I enjoyed it very much and I warmly commend it to aficionados of American music or of music theatre.


John Quinn

See also review by Rob Barnett.


Return to Index

Untitled Document

Reviews from previous months
Join the mailing list and receive a hyperlinked weekly update on the discs reviewed. details
We welcome feedback on our reviews. Please use the Bulletin Board
Please paste in the first line of your comments the URL of the review to which you refer.