Virgil Thomson is probably best known today as a critic and for his first opera, Four Saints in Three Acts
(1933). Like that work, The Mother of Us All
has a libretto by Gertrude Stein and features historical characters - as does his last opera, Lord Byron
(1966-68). There is no plot as such; the characters usually express their point of view without reference to what the others are singing. My regrettable ignorance of American history makes it hard for me to say to what resemblance if any the characters in the opera – including several Presidents and other politicians - have to their historical namesakes. The main character is Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), an activist for women’s rights, her views being contrasted with the various historical or legendary characters. The two authors of the opera are also present as Gertrude S. and Virgil T. Inevitably the actual text is written in Gertrude Stein’s very individual style. Much more than in Four Saints in Three Acts
, however, a degree of conventional meaning is apparent as well as ingenious but abstract wordplay.
A crucial aspect of the performance of either of these two operas is the audibility of the text. The first (incomplete) recording of Four Saints in Three Acts
was immaculate in that respect, whereas later versions included more music but lost much of their effect due to poor diction. Diction in the present set ranges from very good to barely adequate. Although Noragh Devlin as Susan B. Anthony manages her demanding part with considerable stamina her diction is not good. Albany deserve praise for including the entire sung text in the booklet — albeit in a very small font — but it is regrettable that it is necessary to follow it closely in order to appreciate what is being sung. Admittedly this is all too common a problem nowadays, and I have no doubt that in his role as an often waspish critic the composer would have had much to say about it.
It would however be regrettable if this were to put potential purchasers off. As in Four Saints in Three Acts
the music makes use of a multiplicity of styles and contains many allusions to a variety of domestic and social forms of American music. This parallels the inclusion of so many historical figures in the cast giving an overall impression of a cavalcade of many aspects of American life in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although it is said to be recorded live this is only occasionally apparent to the listener. The orchestra play with style, panache and sensitivity. They also play the Suite drawn from the opera which summarises several key scenes.
It is good to have an alternative version of this opera in the catalogue, although I have not heard its predecessor from New World Records. I realise that for all its originality there are people who regard Virgil Thomson’s music as lacking in musical interest. Such people will avoid this set but it is well worth investigating if you do enjoy it or are simply intrigued by this unique work.