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Steve NIEVE (b.1958) with Muriel TEODORI (libretto)
Welcome To The Voice
Profane Voices:
Sting – Dionysos
Robert Wyatt – The Friend
Elvis Costello – Chief of Police
The London Voices, Le choeur des amis Français Sacred Voices:
Barbara Bonney – Opera Singer
Sara Fulgoni – Ghost of Carmen
Nathalie Manfrino – Ghost of Butterfly
Amanda Roocroft – Ghost of Norma
Brodsky Quartet; Steve Nieve (piano, moog synthesizer, theremin); Ned Rothenberg (clarinets, saxophones, shakuhachi, bass flute); Marc Ribot (guitars); Sting (electric bass guitar); Antoine Quessada (cymbals)
rec. dates and locations not given
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6524 [70:48]

 


Classical labels are having to cast their nets ever wider in order to create original ‘product’ in a market under increasing economic pressure. That said, Deutsche Grammophon always did have unexpected and exotic items in their catalogue. And to prove the point I still have in my eclectic collection some weird and wonderful electronic stuff by the young Stockhausen, Vangelis and a bunch of Balinese gamelan players.

Welcome to the Voice is, as described in Wikipedia: “a bilingual opera (French and English) … A first draft was given a workshop performance at the Atlantic Bell Jazz Festival in 2000. The performance cast was Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith, John Flansburg and students of the Juilliard School of Music. Musicians were Brodsky Quartet, Steve Nieve, and Ned Rothenberg. Following this exploratory first attempt, “ Welcome To The Voice” was expanded and in 2007 [this] studio recording of the work, produced by Nieve/Teodori was released by Deutsch Grammophon.”

Don’t be frightened off by the French aspect, most of the singing is in English, and the French texts sung by the ghosts of Carmen and Butterfly are translated in the booklet, which gives the entire libretto. Welcome To The Voice is a multifaceted piece that employs voices from different musical worlds. It thrives on the juxtaposition of men who have characterful voices which come from jazz or rock with women who have been classically trained. 

Sting has appeared on DG recently, singing songs by Dowland, an attempt which didn’t go down too well with one reviewer. I did a similar test to our very own Kirk McElhearn and played some of this disc to my better half, but we didn’t get very far. After some stolid silence the response was “I can’t bear his wailing”, so we didn’t get much further. She’s a Bon Jovi fan, so I’ve taken her off classical reviewing for now.

I’m quite a fan of Sting and have been for donkey’s years, and to me he sounds quite at home in this role. The vocal writing is fairly undemanding, but gives some space for ‘acting’ the part – the lines falling short of being full-blown operatic arias, while at the same time being more than a variant on recitative.

Elvis Costello is another larger-than-life entertainer with a distinctive sound. I feel his style fits more closely with the more punchy rhythms and clever double-entendres of his own music, but his is a valid contribution. He has of course worked with the Brodsky Quartet before, on an album called ‘The Juliet Letters’ among other things. I’m less familiar with Robert Wyatt’s work. His is the straightest sound, with a direct, almost naïvely undemonstrative quality, providing a good counterfoil to the grandeur of Sting and the gravelly heft of Costello. While I allow plenty of room for suspension of disbelief, a rough tough iron foundry worker he is not. The ladies are of course all wonderful, revelling in the classic pastiches and with Barbara Bonney showing how you can be an opera singer without having to sound like a big wobbly diva.

Just to give you an idea of what you might expect by way of a story-line, here is a précis of the synopsis: The opera tells the story of a Greek immigrant named Dionysos who discovers the music of opera and leaves his job in a foundry to devote himself to it. He is visited by the ghosts of Carmen, and later by Butterfly and Norma, all of whom urge him to die and follow them into opera heaven. A workmate, Dionysos’s friend, arrives and tries to persuade him to return to the foundry. Dionysos expresses that he is strong enough to live in this world. The Opera Singer - the object of Dionysos’s desire, comes out of a perfume shop. This is the chance Dionysos has been awaiting. He longs to speak with her, to touch her; he tries to kiss her, but she is afraid and pushes him away. The police arrive, and he is condemned by the crowd. It seems Dionysos will be sent to prison. Suddenly the Opera Singer stands up for Dionysos with a passionate declaration of love. Her words save him. Everyone rejoices, except the Chief of Police. Later, the Chief of Police explains to Dionysos that the Opera Singer has left for Tokyo and that she spoke up only to save herself from bad publicity. Dionysos is in despair. But the Ghosts of the Opera interfere. A huge windstorm has forced the cancellation of all plane flights. The Opera Singer re-appears. Dionysos is filled with renewed hope on seeing the Opera Singer. The two agree on the unlikely nature of their encounter and conclude the opera with an “unlikely” duet.

In terms of the music, there are some nice moments and plenty of lyrical writing, but without an obvious ‘hit’ number which might lift the whole thing to a higher level, although the progressions in parts of ‘Grand Grand Freedom’ get close to something anthem-like. Unfortunately for me, the build-up is too easily diffused by the ‘opera’ aspect, which means that such numbers have to run on into somewhat improbable wandering about – workers singing the names of classical composers - that kind of thing. Part of the problem is indeed the libretto, which might have benefited from some serious editing at an earlier stage. With so many words to fit in, the composer will always have a hard job avoiding aimless padding and keeping things tight.

There are some beautiful lines: ‘whispering voice/incantations/immaterial instrument/ attentive mother’s darkness lightening lullaby’ but not everything has this kind of core impact. The writer’s number one rule, ‘omit needless words’, could easily be adapted to include ‘omit needless lines’ here, with plenty of dodgy stuff that even Telemann might have had to work hard to fit in.

It’s easy to be critical, and I do appreciate the creative input which has gone into making the production a reality. Take away all of the big names and what are we left with? Probably not a work which would otherwise be considered by a huge firm like DG. Welcome To The Voice is basically a chamber opera which could effectively be taken up by smaller companies rich in character singers, but for whom a symphonic orchestra is a budget too far. The instrumentation is of necessity somewhat limited, but this is only a problem if your expectations have been conditioned by listening to too much Verdi. A comparison might be Weill’s Threepenny Opera, but that is more theatre than opera and with plenty of spoken text, of which there is none in WTTV. John Gay’s original The Beggar’s Opera might be closer to the mark, especially if you know the sugary version by Richard Bonynge, but I don’t insist on finding historical precedent – there are plenty of examples of spiritual mucking-about with the affairs of man in the often tortuous world of baroque opera.

What do I miss most in this production? I suppose my main bugbear is that the whole thing takes itself too seriously. There are no jokes as far as I can tell, no moments of dramatic light relief which would refresh the mind for further gloom. In this sense the ‘drama’ as such remains pretty much on one level throughout, so the inclination to fall asleep is never too far away. I don’t insist on new operas having songs in the style of Tom Lehrer being shoehorned in just to get a cheap laugh, but there were several moments where I felt opportunity for some wit and fun were missed – unless you count the ending, which has to be some kind of joke on someone. If you want fun, drama and a hit aria on one album ‘The Soul Cages’ has more, and ‘Punch the Clock’ has it all. Another problem is that of what one of my composition teachers called ‘sleeping on both sides of the blanket’. I appreciate that one of the raisons d’êtres for the whole thing is the combination of different kinds of voices, but even taking this into consideration this piece never really pins its colours to the mast in any stylistic sense. There are bits of opera, bits of musical, bits of a kind of ‘world’ music with Ned Rothenberg’s shakuhachi for Madame Butterfly, bits of jazz and plenty of bits which might fit into something by John Adams or Michael Nyman – there’s both fish and flesh, but they don’t always sit together entirely comfortably.

Despite the production having been put together a bit like a patchwork quilt, due to the work schedule of some of the stars involved, the performances gel fairly well, being held together by the glue of the extremely hard-working Brodsky Quartet. There are one or two slight nasties in the recording, with Costello’s voice suffering badly at one point. With multi-tracking and a heavy reliance on studio effects in places I doubt this will become anyone’s Hi-Fi demonstration disc. To be fair, while I doubt I shall be playing this CD much I found the experience less awful than I might have expected when making a start. It’s a bit like breaking your leg on a Hollywood film set: painful in places, but at least you can enjoy your all-star cast afterwards.

Dominy Clements


 


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