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John CARBON (b.1951)
Benjamin: An Opera in Two Acts (1987)
Libretto by Sarah White
Benjamin Baritone - Stephen Kalm (baritone)
Deborah Franklin - Valerie Bernhardt (mezzo)
Benjamin Younger - Kristen Forrest Leich (mezzo)
Temperance – Colleen Yorlets (soprano)
Resolution – Gregory Johnson (tenor)
Silence – Ashley Konig (alto)
Order – Michael B. Popovsky (baritone)
Chastity – Dana Tambellini (soprano)
First Messenger – Jami Ross (baritone)
Second Messenger – Austin D. Williams (tenor)
Madame Brillon - Lorraine Ernest (soprano)
Maître de Musique – Bruce Gustafson (harpsichord)
Franklin and Marshall College Opera Theatre/William Wright
rec. live, Roschel Performing Arts Centre, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 19-21 January 2006.
ZIMBEL RECORDS ZR114 [65:47 + 66:58]
Experience Classicsonline


John Carbon has been on the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College since 1984 and three years after joining he collaborated with librettist and poet Sarah White (b.1936) on this opera. Carbon’s music has been recorded by MMC and he’s joined with musicians such as Richard Stolzman and Marin Alsop, both of whom have recorded pieces by him. He seems to favour historical figures for his stage work; he’s working on an opera about Houdini and his connection with Conan Doyle.
 
Houdini shares one thing in common with Benjamin Franklin, the subject of the opera under review - most people think they were American and they weren’t. Houdini was a Hungarian Jew and Franklin was an English Colonist. Franklin may have been a diplomat and scientist (and briefly an American) but he wasn’t an escapologist - except perhaps linguistically and in matters of the heart. This chamber opera charts his life from a prologue in about 1715 to scenes in Philadelphia in about 1730 and 1740, an Atlantic sea crossing in 1757 and then, in Act II scenes in London and Philadelphia, and Paris followed by a final sea crossing and death in 1790.
 
The opera has some conceits starting with a Prologue with the child Benjamin (called Benjamin Child) playing with musical glasses as the real chorus warms up. Benjamin himself – called Benjamin Baritone – makes his child self climb into a steamer trunk and closes the lid. The conceit of the trunk recurs. This almost metaphysical, play-within-a-play framing device adds a jolt of anti-realism to the proceedings from the outset and keeps the idea of narrative consistency at arm’s length.
 
Carbon uses a form of baroque based recitative tinged with spiced harmonies to propel his narrative. There are strong elements of musical theatre at work and whilst there’s no clear lineage Stravinsky must have been an influence on Carbon in a general sense, as well as perhaps de Falla and in the lyrical moments maybe a Ned Rorem sensibility. These are very general pointers, in no way to be taken as directly applicable, but they do show the kind of enjoyably middle-of-the–road position Carbon adopts.
The neo-classical writing for winds does add a certain tart tint to the ensemble, whereas the writing for strings is often lyric. The chorus can sometimes sound close to the conventional contemporary-classical muse; the chorus that ends Act One Scene One – Greetings Deborah – sounds dangerously close to Ruttersville. But there are fine little coup de théâtre  – the Lightning Scene must look good with an electrocuted turkey held aloft; is this a rebuke to Wagner’s swan? And when Franklin’s modernity is invoked the accompaniment shifts from harpsichord to Copland-tinged piano, maybe the better to suggest the modernity of Franklin’s mind and inventions.
 
The pace slackens when Franklin travels for the last twenty years of his life; the Second Act loses the concentration, anticipation and the focus that’s generated in the First. But there are still things to enjoy; the French dialogue and flirtations in Paris, the spooky glass harmonica music, the in-joke about Franklin College - which gets an appreciative in-house laugh from the audience. We hear Madrigals, folk tunes (Sur le pont d’Avignon), some enjoyable arias and the death of Franklin in which the twin Franklins, Baritone and young self, reach a sense of reconciliation.
 
In this chamber opera Carbon has fashioned elements and devices contemporary with Franklin – operatic recitative, folk song, madrigal, coloratura. Through stage and narrative devices he and Sarah White have tried to suggest Franklin’s multiplicities, his divided and undivided selves, the accommodations he made, the wife he perforce neglected through travels and diplomatic work, the scientific and musical advances he made.
 
A full English libretto is included and the sound is perfectly serviceable – indeed more than that. It’s a very likeable work, and without seeing it one has to imagine the choreography, the comic and other interludes, and the general impression that it would make on stage. The singing roster is quite big though and scenes such as the appearance of the Allegorical figures could perhaps be trimmed. Let’s hope this disc inspires chamber companies and allied singers – some of the singing roles are demanding – to give Carbon and White’s opera further showings.
 
Jonathan Woolf
 


 


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