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Daron HAGEN (b. 1961)
Shining Brow - An Opera in Two Acts and a Prologue to libretto: Paul Muldoon (1993)
Robert Orth (baritone) - Frank Lloyd Wright; Brenda Harris (soprano) - Mamah Cheney; Robert Frankenberry (tenor) - Louis Sullivan; Mathew Curran (bass-baritone) - Edwin Cheney; Elaine Valby (mezzo) - Catherine Wright; Gilda Lyons (soprano) - Maid / Townswoman 3; Elem Eley (baritone) - Julian Carlton / Waiter / Reporter 3 /Workman 4; James Dentler (baritone) - Workman 1 / Guest / Photographer / Last Draftsman; Jennifer Lynn Reckamp (soprano) - Wife / Townswoman 1; Tony Barton (tenor) - Draftsman / Workman 2 / Reporter 2; Deborah Fleischer (soprano) - Townswoman 2 / Wife; Eric Fleischer (tenor) - Reporter 1 / Workman 3 / Workman 5
Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra / JoAnn Falletta
rec. live, Kleinhaus Music Hall, Buffalo, New York, 4-5 November 2006
NAXOS 8.669020-21 [66:04 + 72:20]
Experience Classicsonline

Now in his late forties Daron Hagen has been eminently successful for many years in a wide variety of musical genres: orchestral, concertos, chamber music, vocal and opera. He has received commissions from leading American orchestras like the New York Phil, the Philadelphia and the National Symphony and from numerous instrumentalists. He numbers among his teachers Ned Rorem, David Diamond, Witold Lutosławski and Leonard Bernstein. With such diverse musical influences it's no wonder that his own compositional style is eclectic, a remark that is in no way deprecating. It only denotes that he is at home in a variety of styles and is able to adjust to the requirements for each specific composition. I have listened to excerpts from a number of his compositions and the remaining impression is that here is basically a warm romantic with ability and willingness to write gorgeous melodies. Romeo and Juliet for flute, cello and orchestra is a splendid example and the second movement from his third piano trio Wayfaring Stranger (2007) is extremely beautiful. He is just as adept at writing rhythmically fresh and rather naughty music for brass - the Invention from Concerto for Brass Quintet!. He is also accomplished when writing for the human voice. I haven't heard any of his solo songs - of which there are a lot - but his choral writing is extremely affecting. The Waking Father for six male voices is music to return to. His musical idiom is largely tonal though he employs various modern techniques for expressive reasons. Mixing styles - high and low - is one of his hallmarks and he is a splendid communicator, which his first opera Shining Brow aptly demonstrates.

It was in July 1989 that Daron Hagen was asked by the Madison Opera to write an opera about the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Together with the chosen librettist, Paul Muldoon, Hagen worked out a synopsis and set to work with the first act, which fizzed along without problems. The second act was tougher and he met Leonard Bernstein several times for guidance. Bernstein died in October 1990, before the opera was finished, and it is dedicated to his memory.

Frank Lloyd Wright fell in love with a client's wife Mamah while outlining their house. They left their respective wife and husband, went to Europe. Eventually returning to the USA, they built a house in Wisconsin, Taliesin, which is Welsh for 'Shining Brow'. In 1914, when Wright was in Chicago, his manservant murdered seven people in the house, including Mamah and her two children and then set the house on fire. Two survivors managed to put out the fire but the house was seriously damaged. This is essentially the story of the opera. Frank Lloyd Wright lived until 1959 and probably his most famous creation is the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Musically Hagen's score is a conglomerate of the manifold styles I referred to in his other works, but wholly efficient and personal. Shining Brow is a number opera with arias, choruses, orchestral numbers and ensembles. The music is very varied to mirror the dramatic and emotional contents of the story. The chorus of draftsmen (CD 1 tr. 2) has 'go' and makes me think of Orff and Carmina burana. Wright's arietta (CD 1 tr. 5) is melodious and agreeable and his wife Catherine's aria (CD 1 tr. 6) has echoes of Broadway musical. The Sullivan Variations (CD 1 tr. 8) is hymn-like brass music and there is another chorus with plainsong character. In act II there is a barbershop quartet (CD 2 tr. 8) and the Canapé Variations (CD 2 tr. 9) is a long gossip scene at a cocktail party played against the waltz from Der Rosenkavalier. Initially there are quotations from the Presentation of the Silver Rose from the same opera. Symbolically this 'theft' of another composer's music is a parallel to Wright's 'theft' of another man's wife. Sullivan's arietta (CD 2 tr. 15) is a song that should be on many opera-lovers' list of the most beautiful opera arias. It is followed by an a cappella chorus that nods in the direction of Bernstein's Candide (the Westphalia chorus). The rhythmic elements are often very much in the foreground and there are no longueurs. To my mind this is a truly inspired and dramatically convincing opera and readers who prefer operas with melodies should know that there is a wealth of melodic inventiveness.

The cast is a good one and several of the members have taken part in earlier productions, including Robert Orth as Frank Lloyd Wright and Brenda Harris as Mamah. They are both excellent and Robert Frankenberry as Wright's one-time mentor and friend Louis Sullivan sports a fine lyric tenor. The Buffalo forces are splendid and JoAnn Falletta brings out the dark dramatic side of the work as well as the lyrical music of which there is also a lot.

The recording can't be faulted and the few stage noises only enhance the feeling of a real occasion. While writing the final paragraphs of this review I have been listening again to large portions of the opera and can report that it grows further with renewed acquaintance. The orchestration stands out as superbly varied, brilliant and expressive and the melodic material is organically interwoven with the story. The only regrettable thing is that there is no libretto available. We get only a synopsis that gives the outline but leaves you in limbo as far as detailed understanding is concerned.

Anyway, relatively contemporary operas are rare guests in the record catalogues. Shining Brow, like Carlson's Anna Karenina that I reviewed a short while ago, are extremely valuable additions to a repertoire that far too seldom reaches beyond Puccini. Daron Hagen has no intention to challenge Puccini; he has his own musical world that is just as valid - and it shouldn't be less accessible to opera-lovers.

Göran Forsling


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