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Jonathan DOVE (b. 1958)
Siren Song - An opera in One Act (1994)
Brad Cooper (tenor) - Davey Palmer; Mattijs van de Woerd (baritone) - Jonathan Reed; Amaryllis Dieltiens (soprano) - Diana Reed; Mark Omvlee (tenor) – Regulator; Marijn Zwitserlood (bass-baritone) - Captain; John Edward Serrano (speaker) - Wireless Operator
Siren Ensemble/Henk Guittart
rec. live, Grachtenfestival, 14-15 August 2007, Muziekgebouw aan t IJ, Amsterdam, The Netherlands. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10472 [77.37] 
Experience Classicsonline

Jonathan Dove is now a prolific composer of dramatic works of all sorts. Without hesitation he could be thought of as the
UK’s leading composer of opera. Siren Song was one of his earlier works and it seems one of his most striking and successful. This is its debut recording. It is also the second Dove opera which Chandos have recorded, ‘Flight’ (1998) having come out in 2005 (CHAN 10197(2)) – see S&H review. I have not heard ‘Flight’ so I did have the possible advantage of coming to this new disc with, as it were, virgin ears. I will pass on my thoughts. But first the plot. 

The libretto by Nick Dear is based on a book by ex-ITV broadcaster Gordon Honeycombe and divides the plot into seven scenes. It is important to understand that it is set, we are clearly told, in 1988 before mobile phones and the internet were so common. The story concerns a true ‘scam’ of a relationship between a naval seaman Davey Palmer and Diana Reed a model who does not actually exist despite the fact that they exchange letters. He sees her in his imagination, skimpily and fashionably dressed and we see and hear her too - sadly the booklet which has several photos only has one of Diana with her back to us! A strong relationship is formed yet it is only out of a newspaper ad put in by a con-man who sets himself up as Diana’s brother and extorts gifts and money from Davey. I won’t go on and spoil it for you. There are some amusing moments and some disturbing ones, some bad language and some moments when you sympathize with Davey when you know him to be a fool. 

Davey is sung by the marvellous Australian tenor Brad Cooper - not the Hollywood actor by the way - who brings the character completely to life most believably. He has a superb voice with a fine upper register. He has only a little more to do than the Dutch baritone Mattijs van de Woerd who plays Jonathan Reed. He too has superb diction and characterisation. Any composer with singers like these can consider himself lucky indeed. Not only that but the supporting performers are very well cast especially the glorious and at times, sexy soprano of Amaryllis Dieltiens who until now has been more noted for her early music recordings. I suspect that the purity and clarity of her voice even when competing with a large(ish) ensemble made her an ideal choice for this extraordinary part. Henk Guittart keeps everything under superb control, tempi and balance, especially so in the complex quintet for all of the main characters in scene sixteen. 

I am caught between my heart and my brain even more than usual with this piece. Quite simply I was utterly carried away at times by the story-line and music. The melodies soar and are memorable being also obviously grateful to sing; the harmonies yearned with a rare passion and the orchestration for a fairly small ensemble was neat and beautifully thought out and coloured. So there you are, in nutshell all the positives. Now the negatives. 

Dove enables a sense of forward movement to be created by a consistent and persistent series of ostinati over which voices fall and rise in a basically tonal idiom. Using this approach anything is possible but there is a lack of textural techniques and still moments. These ostinati, typical of John Adams and Philip Glass with their repetitions, create a very slow-moving harmonic backdrop creating the effect one of constantly running on the spot; composing like this is quick and simpler than usual. And no harm in that I hear you and the composer cry. You might however tire of the instrumental background and often feel sorry for the players. In Scene 2 for instance it’s over two minutes before the tonality shifts and then up only a semitone for a short time before another slightly newer ostinato takes over. I must add that some of the libretti is best lost and forgotten “We’ll go to Comet/To Comet/It’s the centre of the home appliance universe /I could live in Comet” and so on. 

Yet and yet I have much enjoyed this opera and would love to see it. I shall listen to it again. It is often exciting, stirring and very beautiful. 

It’s curious that an Almeida commission should find itself made available on CD from a Dutch company at a live Dutch performance. Jonathan Dove’s position in the UK despite his output is still side-lined, unregarded and unrewarded. Being a live recording there are occasional blemishes and audiences noises. Instrumental parts disappearing into the ether from time to time but the performance has a magic about it which is indescribable. 

The full text is clearly printed along with an essay by Julian Grant - who, like Dove, has also worked on community opera projects. There is a plot synopsis and various cast photos and biographies all in a thick 78 page booklet.

Gary Higginson 

see also Review by Robert Hugill



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