Tobias and the Angel (1989) [75:16]
Tobit Omar Ebrahim (baritone)
Anna Hyacinth Nicholls (mezzo)
Tobias Darren Abrahams (tenor)
Raphael James Laing (counter-tenor)
Raguel Kevin West (tenor)
Edna Maureen Braithwaite (soprano)
Sara Karina Lucas (mezzo)
Ashmodeus Rodney Clarke (baritone)
Raguel's men - Mensah Bediako, Simon Greenhill, George Ikediashi,
Children's Chorus; Adult Chorus (unison); Adult Chorus (satb); Instrumental
Ensemble/David Charles Abell
rec. St. Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, 6-8
CHANDOS CHAN 10606 [75.18]
My first thought on listening to this CD was how marvellous to have commissioned such a wonderful piece of music. Tobias and the Angel was written in 1989 as a church opera, with community involvement, being premi่red at the Almeida Theatre. Jonathan Dove's music and David Lan's libretto proved to have life beyond the initial first run. The work was taken up by churches in the UK and America. Then in 2005 a collaboration between the Young Vic and English Touring Opera generated a production which involved the local Waterloo Community and this same production re-opened the new re-vamped Young Vic Theatre in 2006.
David Lan's libretto provides a concise but poetic re-telling of the story of Tobias from the Book of Tobit (from the Apocrypha). The Biblical story is a curious tale, which mixes the mystical with elements of Jewish Folk tale. Lan gives us a quite straightforward narrative, but one which uses direct language and vivid images. A persistent image in the libretto is the idea of listening and the equating of hearing with enlightenment.
Dove brings to this his usual approachable style, using distinctive timbres and musical textures to characterise the various groups. Granted, some passages sound quite similar to other bits of his work, and at least one passage seems to owe something to John Adams. Also some of the angel Raphael's more mystical moments are highly akin to Britten's Oberon, perhaps because Dove is using a counter-tenor (James Laing) as Raphael. But Dove weaves all these together into a charming whole, managing to conclude with a spiritual message at the end which is uplifting but not mawkish.
The forces involved are professional opera singers, an ensemble of nine musicians (supplemented by four more on the recording) and three choirs. There is a children's chorus, who play the sparrows and the fish; an adult chorus which sings in unison, playing the mountain, the river and the wedding guests; and an adult chorus which sings in four parts, playing the people in the market, the trees and angels. Dove gives highly singable music to these four groups, never seeming limited by any restrictions that abilities might have place on him. But also displays a wonderfully deft hand at combining material. So that the opera is musically complex without being over-complicated.
The piece opens and closes with an older Tobit - Omar Ebrahim in warm and authoritative voice - narrating the story. Tobit and his wife Anna (Hyacinth Nichols) and son Tobias (Darren Abrahams) live in Nineve where the King is killing the Jews and forbidding them to be buried. Tobit insists on burying Jews in secret, much to the puzzlement of his family. Tobit is blinded by the sparrows (children's chorus) shitting in his eyes; a curious moment but one which must surely have appealed to the scatological element present in most children. Tobias has to cross the mountain to visit Tobit's cousin Raguel (Kevin West) to call in a debt, as Tobit can no longer work.
Lan's libretto intercuts the Nineve scenes with those in Raguel's home in Ecbatane, so that by the time Tobias does reach Ecbatane we are entirely aware that Raguel's daughter Sara (Karina Lucas) is possessed by a demon (Rodney Clarke) which kills her husbands on their wedding night. As Raguel is a rich man, so far seven husbands have been attracted and then killed.
But this is not an adventure story. Whilst dancing in the market place - cue some wonderful klezmer-like dance music - Tobias encounters a stranger (in fact the Angel Raphael played by James Laing) and on their journey to Ecbatane Raphael tries to inculcate some enlightenment into Tobias. Raphael insists that Tobias listen to the silence, to the song of the mountain, the river and the trees. Tobias hears none of these. Though we do as Dove gives each some distinctive music, sung by one of the choruses. Abrahams manages to make Tobias a charming and feckless character, who lives for the moment. But when he actually falls into the river he is attacked by a large fish. Though he claims not to have heard the song of the fish, he understands it enough to be able to kill it. On Raphael's instruction he keeps the heart and the gall.
With the help of the heart Tobias removes the demon from Sara and with the help of his love for Sara he does hear the sound of the silence. Once back at home he understands to use the gall to cure his father's blindness. The piece finishes with Raphael taking his leave of Tobit and his family, instructing them to write the story in a book.
Laing and Abrahams are the heart of this piece and it is their relationship which carries the work. Laing has a slightly feminine sounding counter-tenor voice, one which is comfortable in the higher reaches, which gives Raphael a suitably ambiguous quality, both male and female.
They are well supported by the remainder of the cast. All the singers have memorable moments and create a strong, believable ensemble. The community choruses combine enthusiasm with the sort of accuracy that you need on a recording. All is held together by conductor David Charles Abell.
This isn't a work which pushes the boundaries of music, but it is one that combines the enthusiasm of a community with some vivid music-making. The piece also works at another level, surely the reason why it has been so popular. It makes you think, creating a resonant narrative about Tobias's enlightenment, his journey to responsible caring adult-hood. All this is clothed in Dove's melodically pleasing music.
Do try this piece. I took up the disc prepared to admire but in fact I was charmed and entranced. I hope you will be too.