In the ’twenties and ’thirties Deems Taylor was ever-present on the American musical scene. Composer, critic, announcer for the radio broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera, contestant on musical radio shows, author, editor, member of the board of ASCAP; there seemed to be no activity associated with music he was unwilling to undertake. After WWII the change in musical tastes and Taylor’s declining health conspired to leave him almost forgotten at the time of his death in 1966, except as a critic. But in the mid-’twenties he seemed a natural choice when the powers in charge at the Met decided actually to commission an opera by an American composer. This became The King’s Henchman
, which was phenomenally successful and caused Taylor to be given a second commission for a Met opera.
Taylor lost two years in an effort to find a more American subject for his second opera and finally settled on the novel Peter Ibbetson
by George Du Maurier, as dramatized by the actress Constance Collier, who had herself appeared with the Barrymore brothers in her stage version. Taylor arranged his libretto from Collier’s version. Act I presents two French children, Peter and Mary, who live a happy life in France in 1840. The two children are inseparable and Mary teaches Peter how to “dream true” so they can enter each others dreams. After the death of Peter’s parents he is sent to England to live with his evil uncle Colonel Ibbetson. In Act II Mary and Peter encounter each other as adults and realize that their mental and spiritual connection remains unbroken but that because Mary is married, they must part. In Act III Peter is grievously provoked by his uncle and kills him. He is sentenced to death, but Mary obtains a commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment. For the next thirty years Mary and Peter join each other each night in their private dream until after they have both died, when they can be together in the “real world”.
Taylor’s music in both his operas was frequently accused of being too reminiscent of Wagner and Puccini, and sometimes Debussy. Peter Ibbetson
has few set-pieces, being mostly conversational, and this was also seen as a drawback. However, if much of the opera is not striking for individuality, other parts contain wonderful choral writing and use of French folksongs. Taylor also has a great ability describe in music individual characters and those same critics who complained about his “originality” always admitted he knew how to write music that was charming without being banal and that he could involve the listener in what was happening to the characters. One of the highlights of the opera is Mary’s aria “I could never dedicate my days” (the only true aria in the work) and the music that follows, leading to the end of Act I. Even better is the dream music in the second scene of Act II and the sad music that accompanies the act’s end. I found the best moments in Act III. The music for the prison scene before Peter is informed (to his horror) that he is not to be hanged, with its persistent rhythm, is extremely impressive and beautifully orchestrated. Perhaps the highlight of the whole piece is the third scene of Act III with its dream of childhood and excellent use of the chorus, eventually joined by the soloists. It must also be said that the triumphant final chorus of the opera is not unworthy of those of Wagner or Puccini.
As I am writing this review Lauren Flanigan has just recently finished a revival of the title role in Hugo Weisgall’s opera Esther
. This is a very different type of role in a very different type of opera, but in both these works Ms. Flanigan shows an intensity that gets right to the emotional heart of her role. In Peter Ibbetson
she especially excels at portraying the character’s sense of resignation. The same can be said of Anthony Dean Griffey, although he is also good in the scene where Peter kills his uncle. Especially notable is Richard Zeller-he is truly sinister as the uncle. Lori Summers is also a standout as Peter’s ever-sympathetic friend Mrs. Deane and Emily Lunde as her mother Mrs. Glyn is fine. Equal in importance is Abraham Kaplan who gets every available nuance out of the all-important choral parts. The Seattle Symphony Chorale has never sung more movingly than on this recording. Gerard Schwarz holds everything together very well and has a real sense of the rhythmic impetus needed to keep the opera moving. These discs come from two live performances and there are some of the inevitable unwanted noises as well as the fact that the sound in the hall is somewhat hazy. But there is an added bonus in the copious notes by Taylor biographer and editor James Pegolotti.
As music by Taylor is very hard to find - only a few opera excerpts and Through the Looking Glass
are currently available, this opera is a must for anyone interested in the history of American music. But it is also an opera that can stand on its own merits. If you have any doubts just listen to the applause at the end of the performance.
see also review by John