Gordon GETTY (b. 1933)
Plump Jack (1985, revised 2011): concert version [75.34]
Lester Lynch (bass-baritone) - Falstaff; Nicolai Schukoff (tenor) - Hal; Christoper Robinson (bass-baritone) - Henry IV, Pistol; Melody Moore (soprano) - Clarence, Boy; Nathaniel Webster (baritone) - Bardolph, Chief Justice; Susanne Metzner (mezzo) - Nell Quickly; Robert Berault (tenor) - Shallow, 1st Captain; Diana Kehrig (mezzo) - 1st Traveller; Bruce Rameker (baritone) - Warwick, 2nd Captain, 2nd Traveller; Chester Patton (bass) - Davy)
Bavarian Radio Choir, Munich Radio Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer
rec. Studio One, Bavarian Radio Munich, May 2011
PENTATONE CLASSICS SACD PTC 5186 445 [75.34]
Most composers would give their eye teeth to be wealthy enough to get their music performed without the hassle of continually seeking commissions or funding. Even for composers who are multi-millionaires like Gordon Getty life may not be a bed of roses. Then again, to do Getty credit, while he has poured substantial sums of money into music, he has not used his benefactions to promote his own music at the expense of others. The number of recordings of his music is small, but we have enough on disc to be able to judge that his music - written in a conservative but not reactionary style - is fully worthy of the accolade of performance. His song cycle The White Election alerted us some years ago to an individual voice; and more recent CDs of his orchestral music - performed by a no less distinguished body than the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields under Sir Neville Marriner - review - and choral works - conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and Alexander Vedernikov - have given us the opportunity to discover some really enjoyable music. The latter disc in particular has shown us that Getty has a real feeling for words, and can set them in an approachable but involved style.
All this made the prospect of a recording of his opera Plump Jack really enticing but, at any rate, on the basis of this performance, one can only register a sense of profound disappointment. What has gone wrong?
In the first place, the idea of an opera on the subject of Shakespeare’s fat knight Sir John Falstaff is hardly new. Settings based on The merry wives of Windsor by composers such as Salieri, Balfe, Nicolai, Vaughan Williams and Verdi are all established in the mainstream or fringe repertory. The Falstaff scenes from Henry IV have been less often mined, although Holst’s At the Boar’s Head retains a small toehold in the catalogue.
Getty has similarly used Shakespeare’s history plays as the basis for his libretto. Although he does not set the ‘honour’ monologue which Boito extracted for Verdi, some of his texts do parallel those set by Holst. Much of Getty’s libretto focuses ironically enough not on Falstaff himself, but on the development of the character of Prince Hal from the street-wise ruffian into the noble King Henry V. This aspect extends to including settings of passages from Shakespeare’s Henry V in which Falstaff does not appear at all. The real problem with this is that the passages he has selected are not generally ones which lend themselves to musical treatment although he does include such speeches as “O for a muse of Fire” from Henry V, putting the words into the mouth of Pistol.
The manner in which Getty treats his selected texts only serves to compound the problems he has set himself. In his booklet notes Getty is quite frank about his methods: “I place most of the musical content in the orchestra, like Wagner in The Ring, and fit a recitative-like prosody to this melodic background.” Now this is not quite an accurate description of Wagner’s method; for what Wagner generally writes is not recitative-like but a form of arioso, where the voice shares in the melodic material rather than merely providing a counterpoint to it. Getty goes on to draw some rather unwelcome conclusions from his thesis: “This bias towards recitative, leaving most of the melody to the accompaniment, makes it easy to write ossias to suit voices of different ranges. I need only pick other notes in the harmonies that keep the rough shape of the line.” This approach produces real dangers. Time and again in this performance one is brought up short by a vocal line that simply does not approximate the patterns of real speech - which is after all the point of recitative - and at the same time lacks any melodic distinction which might transform the recitative into arioso. In fact, the sense of feeling for a text which Getty has demonstrated in his choral music is really lacking here.
Another thing that is disturbing is Getty’s sense of dramatic timing. The booklet gives us the full English text, including the stage directions; but there simply would not be enough time in a stage performance for some of the action to take place in the time allowed. At the end of the First Act the directions read: “Falstaff puts on his cuirass, hoists his sword belt over his shoulder, puts on his helmet, and strides to the door. At his most imperious, he throws wide the door and stares down the Captains. He then turns to the Hostess, with a deep and courtly bow.” All this would make for a fine curtain, but Getty allows almost no time at all for any of it; instead there are just a few bars of orchestral postlude and a very abrupt conclusion. At other points there are changes of scene where one would welcome a degree of expansion in the orchestral music, but we just don’t get it. At the same time there are unwanted pauses at other points in the text which don’t appear to be dramatically motivated. There are also points where the recitative delivery is so rapid that the singers in this performance have to swallow their words. Holst received a lot of adverse comment about his dramatic pacing in At the Boar’s Head, but by comparison with much of Plump Jack his opera was a model of rectitude.
Getty has been working at Plump Jack over a period of years, and we are informed that the scenes were not all composed at the same time, nor indeed in the order that they are given here. This may account for the uneasy feeling that there is a lack of dramatic development in the characters as the plot progresses. The overture, which was added at a fairly late stage in proceedings, has already been included in Marriner’s disc of Getty’s orchestral music, and is given at least as good a performance here; but it has an unfortunate tendency to stop and start, as if it had been patched together over a period of time rather than conceived as a whole unit. The earlier disc of choral music also contained the Jerusalem scene of the death of King Henry V, and that scene was given complete in that recording, while here some five minutes of the music has been removed.
That is because what we are given here is a ‘concert version’ of the score rather than a full recording; perhaps indeed the dramatic timing is affected because of that. We certainly lose two whole scenes which would serve to round out the plot; and a number of the other scenes are truncated, not always to good effect. For example, we are given the raid at Gadshill, but not Falstaff’s boasting narration of it which follows to such comic effect. Getty has set it - it is included in the synopsis of the action - but the whole passage here is simply omitted. We are only given four scenes (out of twelve) which are not subject to abridgement of this kind, and these include the two final scenes of Act Two describing Henry’s preparations for war with France and Falstaff’s death. The description of Falstaff’s death is not as moving as it ought to be; the narration of the Hostess is accompanied by a series of orchestral gestures which fail to cohere into a musical and dramatic whole. Immediately following this passage there is a real jolt as Bardolph and the soldiers enter with their jolly preparations for embarkation, where the quotation of sections of the Agincourt Song - one of the best tunes in all of mediaeval music - serve only to underline the relative plainness of the music that surrounds them. The sense of contrast, which could have been smoothed and made more palatable by an orchestral transition, cannot here be blamed on abridgement.
Nor do the performances here help to bring the musical drama to life before our eyes and ears. The best-known singer in the cast is Susanne Mentzer, who sings the Hostess and does the best she can with such passages as the description of Falstaff’s death. The remainder of the singing is serviceable rather than gripping. Lester Lynch has a fine baritone voice, but there is no sense of rotundity in his singing such as one expects from a Falstaff. Christopher Robertson, who oddly doubles the roles of King Henry IV and Pistol, sounds rather too woolly in tone. Nikolai Schukoff, Austrian rather than Russian despite his name, commands the English language idiomatically, and makes the best he can of passages such as “I know thee not, old man” but he has to work to inject drama into the music, rather than bringing out what should be there already. Melody Moore is rather wasted in the small roles of the Boy and Clarence. The decision to make the first of the travellers ambushed by Falstaff into a mezzo-soprano seems perverse. Would a - presumably wealthy, because worth robbing - woman be travelling alone with but a single male companion in the lawless England of Henry IV’s reign? Robert Breault and Chester Patton give us some nice character sketches as Shallow and Davy in the Gloucestershire scenes, but both their scenes are subjected to cuts and what we have lost might have helped to round out their portrayals.
The orchestra and the chorus - singing in excellent English - are fine and responsive under the baton of Ulf Schirmer, to such an extent that one wishes they had rather more to do. It is nice to see the Bavarian Radio Choir and the Munich Radio Orchestra, who have over the years given us so many recordings of rare and valuable operas, back in harness again. They sound as good as ever. One just wishes that Plump Jack itself had been less disappointing. Getty regards it as his best score, but I personally much prefer works such as Victorian scenes - included on the disc of choral music in a superb performance conducted by Vedernikov - which shows a much greater sense of ability in Getty’s setting of words.
I very much wanted to like Plump Jack, but in the event the main feeling I came away with was one of frustration. Perhaps another round of revision might help.
This disc seems to have been a long time coming for review - Fanfare published a review as long ago as last September - but its international release is welcome.
It comes in a gatefold booklet, with full notes in English and translations of the synopsis into French and German - other translated material is available on Pentatone’s website. The booklet contains also some rather charming period illustrations of episodes in the plot; one just wishes that it could have not been glued into the gatefold so that it could be extracted for greater ease of use.
Those, like myself, who admire Getty’s music, will want to hear Plump Jack, but despite the discovery of some intermittently beautiful passages they should be prepared for disappointment too. Those who do not know Getty should investigate the discs of orchestral and choral music first.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Some intermittently beautiful passages but be prepared for disappointment too.
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