British composer James
Stevens studied with Benjamin Frankel and Nadia Boulanger. He
is best known as a composer of film music although his oeuvre
ranges widely across the usual genres. Some biographical information
and a list of works have been put together by Edmund
Whitehouse although, surprisingly, this short opera is listed
as an orchestral work.
Stevens also wrote
the libretto for The Reluctant Masquerade, a story based
on the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who committed seppuku in
1970. This is a ritual form of suicide involving self-disembowelment
then beheading by an assistant: his homosexual lover, Morita
who in turn is then beheaded. I spare you no details here because
neither does Stevens in the opera. The act itself is accompanied
by a spoken commentary delivered by the composer, here sounding
much younger than his eighty-plus years. Beforehand Mishima
has delivered his last work to the publisher – The Sea of
Fertility – the central character of which – Satoko, a reformed
prostitute – also features in the final part of this work.
In the first part,
leading up to the act of seppuku, Mishima has taken over the Eastern
Army headquarters with his small private army and tied up General
Mashita. He reflects on his death to music which reminded me of
Britten, whose church parable Curlew River was also Japanese-inspired.
The mood is initially heroic but then becomes calm as Stevens
imitates popular ballad culture to the words “It isn’t face,
it is isn’t race; What is it I look back upon?...” Once the
gruesome act is over, Natsuko – Mishima’s grandmother – sings
a lullaby that could have come from a Broadway musical.
The second part
is an extended orchestral interlude entitled The Buddha weeps.
This is deeply elegiac and the most original part of the work
musically. The Buddha is weeping not for Mishima but for the
state of the world – the underlying inspiration for his suicide.
The final section
is a long soliloquy called Satoko’s song. She is now
aged 83 and a Mother Superior at a convent. Her reflections
on life are coloured by denial and uncertainty, and provide
a moving conclusion to the work in a similar musical idiom to
The Reluctant Masquerade
had quite a long gestation, Seppuku and Lullaby originally
having being conceived as a self-contained work. The complete
libretto is dated 1993 and the music was finished in 2000. The
recording took four years to prepare and was paid for by the composer.
I presume it has not yet been staged – and there would be some
challenges in doing so. This well-sung and powerfully realised
recording makes a case for that, perhaps alongside an established
one-acter such as Puccini’s Suor Angelica.
If the above has whetted
your appetite, then there is a substantial sound sample from the
first part available on the Pristine
Classical website alongside an amusing interview with the
composer. This laudable enterprise started up a couple of years
ago focusing on historical re-issues but has recently begun to
include modern recordings. The whole opera can be downloaded in
MP3 format for 6 Euros and it’s a bargain. It is also possible
to download the libretto and print off CD covers. This is what
I did – it took only a few minutes and the sound quality is perfectly
fine. I can also recommend downloading Stevens’s Concertetto
Concitato – a mini piano concerto lasting just under 10 minutes,
and which could be burnt on to the same CD. Trenchant and powerful
this is delivered with some panache by Jaromir Klepac, also accompanied
by forces from Prague.
The work of James
Stevens is hardly familiar but here makes a powerful impression.
In The Reluctant Masquerade he deliberately fuses
multiple musical idioms into a coherent and compelling experience.
Patrick C Waller