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.
See also review
by Rob Barnett.