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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
NAXOS AMERICAN OPERA CLASSICS 8.669001-02 [125.50]


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The sixty page booklet is in English including everything you could wish. There is an introduction from the composer, a critique of the work, Tom Z. Shepard's account of the crooked road that led to the release of this set (yes that is the very same Shepard who steered CBS in its glory days), plot synopsis, composer and artist profiles. The synopsis and Shepard's article are also in German and French.

Thomas studied with Tibor Serly (he who completed the Bartok viola concerto). He is a multi-faceted composer active in shows, popular, commercial, jazz and song. His Clarinet Concerto has been performed by Sidney Fell and Stanley Drucker. Images for oboe and chamber orchestra was premiered in Oklahoma. Whimsey for chamber orchestra was premiered in San Jose and then given by the Westchester Symphony conducted by Paul Dunkel (who years ago recorded the Eliot Carter Symphony and Pocahontas Suite). There are various Thomas musicals: Six Wives on the subject of Henry VIII's life and loves, Searching 4Y and Mata Hari (written with Martin Charnin) later retitled Ballad of a Firing Squad. He has won seven gold records as composer arranger for Vic Damone. Roberta Peters, Leontyne Price, Julie Andrews, Jack Jones and the Vienna Boys Choir.

Three brothers work the farm. The farm is owned by their flinty and avaricious father Ephraim Cabot. The brothers are Eben and his two half-brothers, Simeon and Peter who dream of escaping the interminable drudgery of the farm for California and dreams of gold. Eben persuades Simeon and Peter to sign away their stake in the farm in return for gold he has stolen from Ephraim's store and they set off for California. Ephraim returns from a long absence and with a wife, Abbie, in tow. Ephraim has no sense of passing on his farm to anyone not even to Abbie. Abbie and Eben drift together with Abbie making the running. In Act III Abbie bears a child rumoured to be Eben's. The inevitable fight between Eben and Ephraim follows and Eben is beaten. Eben defeated tells of Abbie's plot to take over the farm and vows to follow his brothers to California. Abbie distraught with her affections severed in all directions sings over her baby. With Eben packing to leave Abbie appears and announces that she has killed their son. Eben goes off to the sheriff. Ephraim reappears and when he hears from Abbie that the child was in fact Eben's he tries to unsuccessfully to strangle her. Eben returns and tells Abbie that while he was telling the Sheriff he realised how deeply he loved and how they should now escape together - although they do not do so. Guilt-ridden, Abbie insists that she must suffer for her sin. The sheriff arrives and when he arrests Abbie, Eben announces that he planned the killing with her. The two are lead away by the sheriff leaving Ephraim in lonely Old Testament isolation, possessing and possessed by the land.

Masteroff furnishes a libretto that is apt to Thomas's music. And what of the music? Thomas is a traditionalist. From the sub-title 'folk-opera' you can accurately conclude that the idiom is pastoral Mid-West. The referential points are most clearly Copland's The Tender Land (best heard in Bernstein's Sony extracts), Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love and the rich verismo romanticism of Daniel Catán (try his opera Florencia en el Amazonas) and the semi-operatic works of Stephen Sondheim (notably Sweeney Todd and A Little Night Music). The writing is luminous, lyrically intense, redolent of pastoral scenes but with a perfervid psychological subtext of envy, jealousy and lust. It is usually transparently orchestrated for a very full orchestra. The scenes are through composed without pauses. There are three acts including eight scenes in total with one track for each scene. The music darkens and so do the voices to tragic colours as the child killing and self-sacrificial dénouement is reached in the last two scenes of Act III.

The 'morality' of the piece reflects the sort of predatory possessive capitalism and avarice that grips the two farmers in Delius's A Village Romeo and Juliet. Instead of the children escaping the values of the farm the main protagonists wallow in the commercial venality of their motives. The land stands in idolatrous sway over the father's affections. The land is always 'mine' - hardly 'ours' even just after marrying Abbie.

These very emotive themes, human values, flawed character traits are of course the currency of opera from Verdi, through Puccini and Zemlinsky, Schoeck and Schreker through Bartok and Shostakovich.

This is a modern opera that is not at all hard going musically speaking although its grip is in narrative continuum rather than in lyrical eminences. This is not a construct of ordinary linkages between set-piece scenas although Eben's imploring exaltation in the final scene certainly registers memorably.

There is a real black frisson as the Sheriff turns and admires the farm: 'It's a Jim Dandy farm .... wish I owned it!'. Thunderous dead impacts from the orchestra leave the audience with little hope and no soft sunset of an ending. This is more Tess of the d'Urbervilles than Happy-ever-after.

I see that this double width box set is termed 'American Opera Classics'. We can look forward to other instalments, the next being of Barber's Vanessa. Is it too much to hope that they will record Ginastera's controversial Bomarzo, Sessions' Montezuma and a new recording of Hanson's Merry Mount?

Human foibles, tragedy and sin are reflected unflinchingly in Thomas's knowingly pastoral-verismo score. Not a naive bone in its body.

Rob Barnett

 



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