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Judith WEIR (b.1954)
Blond Eckbert (1993-4)
Libretto by the composer after Ludwig Tieck
Blond Eckbert – Nicholas Folwell (baritone)
Bertha – Ann-Marie Owens (soprano)
Walther/Hugo/Old Woman -Christopher Ventris (tenor)
A Bird – Nerys Jones (soprano)
Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera/Sian Edwards
Original recording from Channel 4 soundtrack to the 1994 film Blond Eckbert
NMC ANCORA D106 [65’09]


After the rather impenetrable eccentricities of the last NMC opera to come my way, Gerald Barry’s The Intelligence Park, it’s good to welcome back a modernist theatre piece that’s direct, lyrical and reasonably traditional. Originally on the Collins Classics label, Judith Weir’s Blond Eckbert is a concise two-acter that had a successful run in Tim Hopkins’ highly stylised production at ENO. The subsequent Channel 4 film was based in part on that production but with certain sections ‘fleshed out’ on film, such as Bertha’s long monologue and the two orchestral preludes. I happen to still have a VHS tape of that broadcast, in pretty poor sound, and it made me hanker for a good modern DVD release, as it was a very effective piece of work. Interested parties might like to know that the same team, headed by director Margaret Williams, have given a similar treatment to Weir’s latest operatic opus, Armida, due to be shown over Xmas this year (2005).

The present CD release is certainly in much better sound. With a full libretto, it is easy to enjoy Weir’s take on the Ludwig Tiekle fairy tale, or dark folk tale, as Weir prefers. The story can be summed up thus:

Eckbert and his wife Berthe live in a remote mountain region. One stormy night, Eckbert’s only friend Walther visits them. To pass the time, Berthe tells Walther her life story, one of cruelty, abuse and eventual escape. Walther mentions the name of Berthe’s dog, a name she herself had forgotten, and Eckbert’s suspicions are aroused.

Later, as Eckbert is aimlessly hunting in the forest, he fires an arrow which kills Walther. All Berthe’s childhood memories and fears have been awakened by Walther and she becomes ill, near death. Eckbert, burdened with worry, visits a nearby city seeking distraction. He is befriended by Hugo, whose likeness to Walther arouses more suspicion in Eckbert. He rushes away, eventually finding himself in the landscape of Berthe’s childhood. An old woman reveals to him that she, Walther and Hugo are the same person, and also reveals the terrible news that Eckbert and Berthe are siblings. Eckbert falls to the ground, insane and dying.

Weir was obviously gripped by the narrative and the way it unfolds. The various subtexts, such as the past coming back to haunt the individual, the penalties of messing with nature etc lend themselves well to operatic treatment. Weir’s multi-layered libretto and eclectic musical language give the piece both form and momentum. It has often been pointed out that Weir is more effective when writing in concise forms, and this tightly structured opera is a good example of this. She is a skilful orchestrator, as the preludes and numerous other details attest, and the musical language on display is direct, colourful and lyrical. If one hears wisps of Britten, Tippett and Janáček, this is no bad thing in an opera. There are also echoes of Wozzeck here and there, something Hopkins’ expressionistic staging further highlighted.

The cast are first-rate and very much on top of their respective roles. Ann-Marie Owens is exceptional in Berthe’s long Act 1 monologue and Christopher Ventris (tenor, not baritone as the booklet says) clearly enjoys the challenge of three differing parts. The recording displays some of its live origins but is full, clear and warm. Apparently there was some criticism of Sian Edwards’ conducting of the premiere, but I have nothing but praise for her control of the teeming orchestral detail whilst never losing sight of the longer line and many dramatic high points. Whilst this CD release is most welcome, I feel it is a piece that benefits from being seen and a DVD of Channel Four’s excellent film really would be the ticket – let’s hope someone’s taking notice.

Tony Haywood



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