Ronald CORP (b.1951)
The Ice Mountain - opera in 4 acts for children's voices and ensemble
New London Children's Choir
New London Orchestra (members)/Ronald Corp
rec. Angel Studios, Islington, London, 9 May 2010. DDD
NAXOS 8.572777 [54:52]

This is the second CD of Corp's music Naxos has released this year - the first was warmly reviewed here. It is difficult to imagine, however, who this latest disc might appeal to beyond the proud families of the participants and those who, if they exist, especially like to hear children singing irrespective of the material. At best, there may be an audience among fans of modern musical theatre, where the main thing is the spectacle.

Ronald Corp is without doubt hugely experienced in writing for children's voices and choirs. He deserves credit for pressing on regardless in the face of the trashy cultural onslaught by American TV import Glee. However, the heyday of operas for schoolchildren is starting to be measured in decades ago rather than years, and in truth, The Ice Mountain, Corp's new chamber opera for children's voices, is not a work to turn the tide. In fact, it is about as interesting as a wet sock.

The Ice Mountain is based on an old and pretty duff folk tale from Switzerland, moulded into a workable libretto by Emma Hill. An artless metaphor for the cycle of life, the opera describes, one scene to an act, one act to a season, a year in the life - albeit absurdly concertinaed - of a village and an old woman still mourning the death of her husband and son years before on the Ice Mountain, on whose slopes they all live. Throw in the spirits of others who lost their lives on the mountain, and a finale which is both pious and mawkish, and you have a tale as clichéd as the music.

Corp's orchestration is sensibly thin, to allow the lightweight voices to be properly heard, but the inclusion of a piano was a bad choice, because its ubiquity washes all the colour out of everything else, rendering the score bland in that modern Broadway musical theatre kind of way. The notes claim the work includes elements of Swiss folk music, but apart from the occasional clanging of cow-bells, the effect is about as Swiss as a military invasion.

Though Corp's melodic, semi-minimalist music may well be enjoyable for children to sing, and might still please easy listening fans, the voices on display here put an end to any lingering chance of recommendation. In fairness, the chorus is well-trained, and some of the soloists are quite reasonable, considering their age - though James Cameron, who sings the part of older boy Klaus, has a 'singing' voice that sends shivers down the spine, but not in a good way. Yet the sheer relentless sameness of the presentation, the virtual non-existence of any acting, the musical straitjacket Corp's writing wraps the young singers in - these do not combine well with an insipid story or folklore's one-dimensional characters or morality.

Bizarrely, the story as it unfolds - if that is the right word - in the libretto is different to the one told in the booklet notes by the opera's producer Abigail Morris. For example, in her synopsis of Act III, two villagers go to ask the old woman to join the wedding festivities, which she eventually does, and the bridegroom reminds her of her lost son. According to the libretto however, it is her sister who goes to beseech her, but she is not persuaded, and stays at home. Similarly in Act IV, Morris writes that the old woman collapses and dies on her way back home from the village, whereas according to the libretto she dies in her sleep at her spindle!

In truth, it does not make all that much difference, because the story is flimsy anyway, but it does look odd when a producer appears not to have read the libretto. It also seems perverse of Corp to set a libretto that has a prominent part for an 'old woman', knowing that the cast is to be entirely made up of children. Using an older teenager to play the part - Natasha Worsley, who has the best voice by far here - is an unsatisfactory compromise, because she sounds so much like the young woman she is.

In its favour, the CD is very professionally recorded, and the booklet includes the full libretto. On the other hand, the notes by Abigail Morris, apart from her differing account of the opera, are written in cliché-ridden English.

Usually, a disc only 55 minutes long would be cause for complaint, but not this time.

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About as interesting as a wet sock.