Michael F. WILLIAMS (b.1962)
The Prodigal Child (1999-2002)
Anna - Joanne Cole-Rosser (mezzo)
Mary - Stephanie Acraman (soprano)
Albert - Paul Whelen (baritone)
The Ogden Plus Quintet
rec. no information supplied
ATOLL ACD306 [59:33]
The Juniper Passion (2011)
Joe - Matthew Landreth (baritone)
Carlo - Pene Pati (tenor)
Bruno - (baritone)
Maria - Lilia Carpinelli (soprano)
Jessie - Stephanie Acraman (soprano)
Helen - Julia Booth (soprano)
Narrator - Paul Gittens (non-singing role)
ensemble/Rachael Griffiths-Hughes
rec. no information supplied
ATOLL ACD243 [49:15 + 46:18]

Michael F. Williams is a New Zealand composer who, after an extended period in the UK and Australia between 1984 and 1998, settled in his own country. He teaches at the University of Waikato and composes prolifically across many genres of what he calls ‘contemporary classical’ music.

In 1998 he began work on The Prodigal Child, his first opera, the initial version of which was completed the following year. After that, as Williams’ website explains, ‘it went into hibernation for three years and didn’t surface until Creative New Zealand’s “Wild Opera” - an initiative designed to lift the profile of New Zealand made opera.’ The librettist, the distinguished Scottish poet, Alan Riach (then teaching at Waikato), originally set the story in rural Scotland, but because of Wild Opera - I infer - it was transposed to rural New Zealand. It received its premiere at the Taranaki Festival in 2003, and has been given subsequent performances in New Zealand. The recording under review was made in 2005.

The story of The Prodigal Child is very simple and involves just three characters. Albert and Mary, childless and rather unhappily married, run a pub. One evening, Anna, a homeless, mentally disturbed woman, comes to their door, asking for shelter. She recounts how she was abandoned by her lover, found that she was pregnant by him, but lost her child — ‘I killed it’ she repeats many times, but the listener infers this is her sense of guilt speaking rather than a confession of infanticide. When she is left alone with Albert, he reveals that he was the former lover. The text and music alone do not make clear what happens next, but to quote the synopsis supplied with the CD: ‘Mary is moved by the experience and feels renewed love for Albert. Anna too is transformed. She finds peace and her image of the dead child is now innocent and joyful. Together the three of them sing the “pi li li lui” lament, which Anna sang (alone) in the first scene. The singing brings them closer to each other and closer to contentment.’ This surprisingly comfortable conclusion is reached in a little under an hour.

Williams’ website says that the story could take place anywhere, at any time, pointing out that the New Zealand productions have set it variously around 1900 and in 1970. It ‘can very easily be adapted to any country or era’, he suggests, ‘the costumes can be designed to fit the ethnicity and era of your choice’. I find this a bizarre claim: the music is so obviously Celtic in flavour and inspiration that it is impossible to imagine the opera being set in, say, eighteenth-century Naples, or nineteenth-century Hungary, or twentieth-century New York - or indeed any place already associated with a distinctive sound-world. To New Zealanders, the opera may evoke their own country, but most other listeners will find themselves imagining Scotland or Ireland, as was, presumably, the original intention.

The libretto is clearly the work of a poet rather than a dramatist; the opera comes across as less dramatic even than a summary of the action suggests. The characters’ utterances tend constantly toward the condition of little lyric poems, often very beautiful. For this reason, perhaps, Williams’ music seems much closer to the world of art song and chamber music than to opera. The use of the redshank motif (‘pi li li lui’, described as ‘an ancient Celtic lament’) and the general Celtic flavour immediately put me in mind, as perhaps it did Williams, of Peter Warlock’s The Curlew. Listening to them together I felt that, if anything, Warlock’s song-cycle is often more like a dramatic monodrama while Williams’ opera is more like a contemplative song-cycle for three voices. Whereas Warlock scored for two violins, viola, cello, flute and cor anglais, Williams replaces the wind instruments with piano. Few ‘blind’ listeners would guess that nearly eight decades separate the two scores, for Williams’ attempt at a sort of timeless, Celtic sound is in fact strongly rooted in pre-war British music. It makes much of Britten sound, by contrast, audaciously modernist. The music of The Prodigal Child is consciously beautiful, in a way one hardly expects in a modern opera, but too often it defaults to being merely atmospheric, evoking attractive sound-pictures which seem to have little to do with the human drama. Reviews from New Zealand suggest that the opera works on stage, though. Thus, it may be that, under a firm directorial hand, it maintains dramatic interest rather better than the CD alone would suggest. Certainly a good deal happened on stage that is not hinted at in the libretto supplied with the CD. Williams’ website, for example, mentions a ‘Spirit Child’, ‘dancing lightly and fleetingly around the characters, sometimes touching or caressing them, just out of the vision of Albert or Anna.’ Sometimes, to a director, less is more.

Williams’ second opera, completed in 2011 and premiered in Hamilton, New Zealand, the following year, is The Juniper Passion. This is a much more ambitious affair, over an hour and a half long. The chamber orchestra of the earlier work is now augmented by bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, percussion, and, most startlingly, ‘digital effects’. It is a sort of collage, with texts in four languages (English, Latin, Italian, German), the principal characters alternately speaking and singing, a chorus intoning liturgical texts, and a ‘Narrator’ - he doesn’t actually narrate anything, but recites passages from the Bible - introduced as a voice-over. In addition to all this, wartime sounds are introduced into the mix, including the voice of Winston Churchill growling ‘To outlive the menace of tyranny’. It is designed for presentation with a lot of projected imagery. The Juniper Passion is described as a ‘dramatic opera’, the title John Dryden gave his and Purcell’s King Arthur, but quite what ‘dramatic’ connotes here it is difficult to say, unless it is indeed what Dryden meant: part play, part opera. In this case, as the title suggests, the work comes across as more part-oratorio, part-opera.

Williams’ librettist, John G. Davies, took his inspiration from his father’s experiences at the bloody battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, as a member of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Richard Davies survived the battle, but the hero of the opera, a New Zealander known simply as Joe, or Joseph, is not so fortunate. He saves an Italian monk, Carlo, from being shot by a German officer, Bruno. However, while attempting to keep Bruno a prisoner he falls asleep, allowing the German to escape with the Juniper Madonna that gives the opera its name. Joe wakes up and sets off in pursuit, but the wartime action ends in a moment of poignant moral ambiguity:

He [Joe] catches him [Bruno] and they struggle. Bruno beats him to his knees. Carlo retrieves Bruno’s pistol and levels it at Bruno who stands above Joe. Suddenly Joe stands (is he pulled upright by Bruno?) just as Carlo fires the pistol. The two men stand in a ghastly embrace and Joe slips free grasping the Madonna.

The parenthetical question is obviously very important, though presumably the stage lighting would need to be very low for there to be genuine uncertainty here. The story unfolds in a non-linear series of scenes, the first dated one taking place in 1960, when Joe’s wife and daughter — who never knew her father — visit his grave and meet Carlo and Bruno there. Not until the last quarter of the opera do we see the climactic scene between Joe, Carlo and Bruno. There is plenty of dramatic tension here, as we know Joe will die, but not how or when; the tension, though, is more that of a film than an opera: the conversation between the three men is mostly spoken.

How well The Juniper Passion would ‘come off’ on stage is very difficult to assess on the basis of the CD, and simply listening to the recording one is aware of missing a great deal. Nevertheless, I found the experience of listening to it while consulting the libretto supplied with the CD very moving. Davies’ intelligent and often very poetic libretto raises searching questions about the meaning of war, of religion, of sacrifice and love - the question of what New Zealand soldiers were doing at Monte Cassino in the first place is kept in view throughout. As suggested above, Williams imagined the material more in cinematic than operatic terms, and this is a considerable disadvantage, not least in making it, I suspect, rather unattractive to opera companies. He seems to have been much more interested in his little orchestra and the ‘digital effects’ than in writing rewarding roles for his singers. The music is very varied in melody, rhythm and texture, but it never forsakes accessibility and is no more challenging to the ear than a Hans Zimmer film score. In places, for that matter, it sounds like the sort of opera Hans Zimmer might write.

After spending a considerable amount of time with Williams’ operas, I feel he is not a natural opera composer and may in fact have had little experience of earlier opera. In fact this leads to a freshness of approach, and if we take a relaxed view of genre, and think more in terms of telling stories with music, The Prodigal Child and The Juniper Passion have much to interest with their poetic texts and ‘polystylistic’ (Williams’ description) scores, both of which have moments of striking beauty and power. They were certainly worth recording, and the recordings are of excellent quality; whether the operas can establish themselves as viable stage works outside New Zealand remains to be seen.

David Chandler

Previous review (Juniper): Bruce McCollum
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