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
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
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.