Marga RICHTER (b. 1926)
Riders to the Sea (chamber opera in one act) (1996) [59:15]
Kyrie for string quartet and double bass [7:30]
Susan Holsonbake (soprano) - Nora, younger daughter; Anna Tonna (mezzo) - Cathleen, older daughter; Melissa Maravell (alto) - Maurya, mother; Aram Tchobanian (tenor) - Bartley, son; Julie Nord and William George. Orchestra (flute, percussion, harp, accordion, strings)/Daijiro Ukon
MOTYL String Quartet with Pawel Knapik (double bass)
rec. St Peter’s Episcopal Church, New York City, May, September 2006.
LEONARDA LE358 [66:45]
Marga Richter was born in Reedsburg, Wisconsin. She is the daughter of the soprano Inez Chandler-Richter (1885-1956). Her early musical training was in Minneapolis and then at the Juilliard School where she majored in piano with Rosalyn Tureck and in composition with Vincent Persichetti and William Bergsma. Do have look at Bruce Duffie’s interview with the composer for more personal insights.
Her stage works include this opera plus two ballets from the 1960s. She evidently has a gift for memorable catchy titles. Her work-list includes Bird of Yearning for small orchestra - 28 players – (1967); Concerto No. 2, Landscapes of the Mind I, piano, large orchestra (1968-74); Country Auction for symphonic band (1976); Blackberry Vines and Winter Fruit (1976) (recorded on Leonarda LE331); Spectral Chimes/Enshrouded Hills for orchestra (1978-80); Out of Shadows and Solitude for large orchestra (1985); Quantum Quirks of a Quick Quaint Quark (1991); Variations and Interludes on Themes from Monteverdi and Bach (concerto), violin, cello, piano, large orchestra (1992) (on Leonarda LE351), Seacliff Variations for violin, viola, cello, piano (1984). Her solo piano music includes Ballet of the Pixilated Penguins (1944) and the Sonata for Piano (1954).
The CD has 12 tracks, with 11 of them allocated to the opera. Kyrie (7:30) occupies the last and is for string quartet and double bass.
Richter’s Riders to the Sea is a single-act chamber opera lasting about an hour. It draws its libretto from the play by Irish poet, John Millington Synge (1871-1908). The specification is for soprano, mezzo, alto, tenor, five or more mixed voices, flute (+ piccolo, tin whistle), Celtic harp/harp, accordion, tubular bells (+ bodhrán), two violins, viola, two cellos.
The play and the opera are set in the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland more than 100 years ago. This is very much an opera of women's voices. Richter has furnished the score with lovely open and transparent textures. There is no clutter or density. The invention stands without distraction or fog. The writing is tonal and the singers here pick up on the Irish accented voices. The first track (‘Where is She?’) is preceded by a minimalist prelude. A tolling bell sets the tone. It’s a constant presence evoking both a buoy and a death knell. There’s the sound of shushing waves, a Celtic harp sounding like a Japanese koto and a flute figure describing a slow-beating wing outline. Nora and Kathleen – and this is an opera dominated by women - talk in an exhausted dialogue. A drum underpins the conversation about drowning and their men-folk. A grave accordion joins the proceedings with the strings. There’s a slow dance towards the end of that episode. Maurya enters. The singer here has a darker nasal voice. This helps in differentiating the female characters. The writing here is graver still and mournful. Again the accordion appears. The women muse on how the sea moves drowned bodies along the coast. In track 3 Bartley sings. The slow sepia images of the finding of an identifying stick rise to Puccinian seriousness.. The scene in track 6 between Cathleen and Nora is moody and tragic. Track 7 conjures the image of Bartley riding the red mare. The strings carry the burden of a ‘Dies Irae’ death march. It is sinister: full of threat and oppressive weight. Maurya recounts a mournful catalogue of drownings with the softest breath-pulse from the strings. The bell - ever the bell – gently but remorselessly drives home the message. In tracks 10 and 11 the bell reappears with hollow and desolate mournfulness. A clan burial for the lost men is the most the women can hope for “.... and we must be satisfied.” This most impressive work’s final pages have the flute’s gentle and fatalistically accepting wing-beat. The bell has the final say. This is a tragic and moving opera the impact of which is helped by the booklet giving all the sung words. There are notes to explain some of the less familiar words.
This is not the first setting of Synge's far-Atlantic Irish opera. The other is by Vaughan Williams from the years around his Fourth Symphony. It has been recorded by Meredith Davies for EMI Classics (also CDM7647302) and by Richard Hickox for Chandos (CHAN 9392). Richter takes more time than RVW and puts the additional 20-25 minutes to good use further to intensify the atmosphere of this most atmospheric of operas.
The Kyrie for String Quintet serves as an aptly grave valedictory track. It traverses Schubert's and Schoenberg’s darkest reaches yet stays just the tonal side of dissonance. The subdued mood is superbly sustained. A touching solo violin reaches out with tenderness at 3.30. The contour described by this piece rises in intensity and then falls naturally into dissolution.
This is a natural choice for Richter, Synge and Irish subject enthusiasts. It also speaks to those who are looking for a concise, tragic, atmospheric and moving opera written in a tonal language for chamber forces.
Rob Barnett
The bell has the final say in this tragic, atmospheric and moving opera.