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Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
Siren Song (1994)
Davey Palmer – Brad Cooper (tenor)
Jonathan Reed – Mattijs van de Woerd (baritone)
Diana Reed – Amaryllis Dieltiens (soprano)
Regulator – Mark Omvlee (tenor)
Captain – Marjin Zwitserlood (bass-baritone)
Wireless Operator – John Edward Serrano (speaker)
Siren Ensemble/Henk Guittart
rec. live, Grachtenfestival, 14-15 August 2007. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10472 [77.37]
Experience Classicsonline

Jonathan Dove’s one act opera Siren Song is based upon a book by Gordon Honeycombe detailing a true story. From it Dove and his librettist Nick Dear have created a hypnotic and fast-moving fantasia. The opera was commissioned by Almeida Opera and first performed in 1994. In many ways it is an atypical Almeida commission as Dove’s style is not that cutting-edge; instead he produces well crafted works which mix wit with a fine eye (and ear) for operatic construction and an aural palate that owes something to John Adams.

Despite have a slew of operatic commissions, Dove’s presence in the catalogue is relatively limited and this live recording from the Grachtenfestival in the Netherlands is only the second of his operas to enter the catalogue. Its says something for the slightly skewed relationship that Dove has with the English musical establishment that this recording has Dutch origins.

Nick Dear’s libretto for the opera divides the plot into a series of short scenes, providing Dove with short, pithy dialogue which mixes in a great deal of wit. The libretto gives Dove plenty of space for the music which is also rather good - and fun - to listen to.

At the heart of the opera is the thriller/mystery of the relationship between Davey Palmer (Brad Cooper) and Diana Reed (Amaryllis Dieltiens). Palmer is a Naval Seaman and answers Diana’s ad looking for love and companionship. The two exchange letters and we see Palmer reading them but hear Diana’s voice. They develop a strong, complex relationship but Palmer is naïve and they open a joint account even before they have met.

Dove’s music, which uses a lot of arpeggiated figures on tuned percussion, creates a dream-like atmosphere which contributes a lot to our appreciation of Palmer’s naïve state of mind. When they try to meet up, events conspire against them and the first person that Palmer meets is Diana’s brother Jonathan Reed (Mattijs van de Woerd). Eventually Diana falls ill and is unable to speak, so that Jonathan develops a tapping code so that she can signal Palmer. Jonathan Reed and Palmer meet up at various places as Jonathan stands in for the sick Diana. Jonathan is a charming, plausible chancer and Palmer is so besotted by the idea of Diana that nothing seems wrong.

But Palmer’s movements and communications have been monitored by the Naval authorities. They accuse him of being a homosexual. His explanations are unconvincing, so they set out to find Diana. Instead they find con man Brian Travis (aka Jonathan Reed). Palmer is devastated.

Dove’s score is written for a relatively small ensemble, just ten players, but he manages within these confines to create some wonderfully hypnotic and transparent textures. He uses percussive recreations of natural noises, morse code tapping and the like, to create rhythmical and musical structures.

A drawback of this live recording is that some of the instrumental lines are not quite as present as one would really like. This does not mar enjoyment but is something to be noted. I hope that in due course a studio recording will be forthcoming.

Brad Cooper is simply brilliant as the naïve dreamy Palmer, his lyric tenor giving a nice shape to Palmer’s long lines. It says a lot for Cooper’s musical skill that he makes Palmer completely believable, even if you do want to give him a shake for being so trusting.

No other character has quite as much air-time as Palmer and it is Cooper who very much carries the piece and ensures that the drama works. He is well seconded by Mattijs van de Woerd as Jonathan Reed who manages to develop a relationship with Palmer even though it is by proxy. Van de Woerd convinces us as Reed; he is a believable con-man.

Amaryllis Dieltiens embodies Diana Reed. In effect she plays Palmer’s imaginary version of Diana, a figure conjured up by simply reading Diana’s letters. As such it probably does not matter that Dieltiens’s diction is poor; she sings Diana’s lyrical cantilena beautifully. In fact Dieltiens is the only cast member whose diction is indistinct; the rest are all impressively communicative. The remaining members of the cast give good accounts of their relatively small roles.

The CD booklet includes an article about the opera, a complete libretto in English and photos from the production.

Siren Song does not dig very deep; instead it conveys the story in swift moving filmic scenes. I would have liked to learn more about the curious relationship between Jonathan and Palmer but Dove and Dear give us a fast paced and illuminating narrative which keeps us entertained and wanting more.

The Siren Ensemble under Henk Guittart play Dove’s score enticingly, and it is hardly their fault if the recording does not catch them quite as well as it could.

I enjoyed this recording and will return to it. Dove’s melodic and well-crafted operas are always a joy to encounter and I hope that this one wins him yet more admirers.

Robert Hugill


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