Deems Taylor is probably best remembered today as a music critic for the “New York World” and as the presenter of Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”. His once much played output of orchestral and other compositions, including the “Through the Looking Glass Suite”, together with his two operas are all virtually forgotten, at least outside America. He is not even mentioned in Wilfred Mellers’ invaluable “Music in a New Found Land”. This recording is a welcome opportunity to re-examine the merits of an opera which at its first performance had proved very popular with audiences but not with critics. Maybe both were right and both wrong.
The composer’s first opera – The King’s Henchman
– had been premiered at the New York Met in 1927 to great critical and public esteem and the Met immediately commissioned a successor. This time the composer decided to write his own libretto, based on a stage version by Constance Collier of the novel Peter Ibbetson
by George Du Maurier, the author of “Trilby”. The title character was brought up in Paris until his parents died, after which he was sent to England to live with his singularly unpleasant uncle, Colonel Ibbetsen. Unknown to him, his childhood companion, Mimsey, has become Mary, Duchess of Towers. They meet and he recognises her at the end of the First Act. In the Second Act Peter returns to the scene of his childhood and dreams of his parents and friends. This time when he meets the Duchess they both remember their times as children, and she tells him that by “dreaming right” they can meet in their dreams. In the Final Act the Colonel continues to claim that he is Peter’s real father. After a scuffle Peter kills the Colonel and is condemned to death. He is however reprieved at the last moment and instead is given life imprisonment. His only consolation is his ability to meet Mary in their dreams. When she fails to appear one day he realises that she is dead and dies himself.
All of this adds up to a libretto containing many strong scenes and situations seemingly designed for a “well-made opera”. Just as the more conventional nineteenth century opera composers expected certain types of scenes and were able to slot in appropriate music, so Taylor knows what is expected at each point in this opera. He follows the best if not the most recent examples by Puccini, Massenet and others. Little is original but for the most part the writing is efficient and one could easily imagine it making a great effect in the theatre. One major flaw, however, is the word setting which lacks individuality and often gives the singers problems in getting crucial words across or in inflecting them suitably. The booklet contains a detailed synopsis and a full libretto (not quite corresponding with the sung text) is available on line, but it is hard to distinguish one character from another purely in terms of their vocal lines.
I understand that a recording exists with the original cast, including Edward Johnson in the title role, Lucrezia Bori as Mary and Lawrence Tibbett as the Colonel. I would love to hear what they made of their parts, but the present performers do their best to project the drama, and I certainly enjoyed hearing it as clearly did the public at its first performance in 1931 when it received 36 curtain calls. Whilst I cannot help feeling that the critics were right to complain of a lack of individuality and originality it is good to come across an opera as effectively written as this and I can imagine it still making a powerful impression in an imaginative production. Provided that you are not expecting more nor less than the musical equivalent of a “well made play” there is much to enjoy here and it is good to have the chance to fill in an important gap in our, or at least my, knowledge of American operas of this period.