John Joubert’s Jane Eyre -
Recorded by Siva Oke for release by SOMM: Session Report
by Rob Barnett
Last night's (25 October 2016, Ruddock Performing Arts Centre, Birmingham) first professional performance of the two act opera Jane Eyre was recorded by SOMM. That 2 CD set will be issued by Somm in April 2017. It will be quite an event and to be there to hear the performance was a delight. Somm, who already have a track record for recording Joubert, took chances - after all this was a single performance not a season - but in the hands of these singers and this orchestra and conductor they were in more than safe and inspired hands.
Jane Eyre is Joubert's Op. 134 (1987-97), an opera in three acts (here given in a two act format), after Charlotte Brontė's novel. It's to a very effective libretto by Kenneth Birkin, one of the composer’s post-graduate students at Birmingham. The other two full-scale operas are Silas Marner (after George Eliot, 1961) and Under Western Eyes (after Joseph Conrad, 1968).
Here are some very rough notes of my impressions of the evening. They can be read with Geoffrey Read's
full-scale review and my trailer piece, both at Seen and Heard
• Each of the two acts (separated by an intermission) comprised three scenes running circa fifteen minutes each.
The first three scenes (Act I) were notable for following a tripartite pattern: tension - emotional conflagration - exhaustion/satiation; very effective. A more conventional approach might have had each scene ending in a pile-driver aria. Things were more diverse in Act II.
The orchestra (English Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Woods) was not huge but very effective and with quite enough dramatic heft at times to challenge the singers: 22 strings, single woodwind and brass, two percussion, timps, a very active orchestral piano and an organ which came into play in Act II: the abortive wedding service and the finale. Joubert's orchestral writing was always worth paying heed to and revealed a huge amount of emotionally-charged detail.
I estimate the auditorium was at about 95% full for the opera - about 20% at the pre-concert talk given by the music critic of the Birmingham Post, Christopher Morley. He and a colleague had at different times been pupils of Joubert when he taught at the University. Rather a shame that the talk did not tell us much about the opera we were to hear but it certainly set the scene so far as Joubert's life and music were concerned.
The audience were silent - having been reminded the performance was bring recorded.
This was a concert performance and most vividly done. April Fredrick (Jane) stood out modestly amongst the other darkly-dressed singers with cream top and green full length skirt. This was a good decision.
Fredrick was an outstanding Jane - independent, fiery, poetic. Her self-possession was well put across in the two scenes where she is pressured by Brocklehurst in Act I, Scene 1 and by St John Rovers in Act II sc. 2. A small detail but so well done: twice, as she left the stage, she casts her eyes back toward the character she was leaving: Brocklehurst at one point and Rochester at the other.
David Stout is a fine Rochester. He has the guns to play up to the great - almost Puccinian - moments especially in Act I but who 'greys away' and becomes less assertive (as the plot dictates) in Act II.
I was impressed by the humanity Joubert showed towards St John Rivers (Mark Milhofer). This character could easily have been rendered as a caricature but he is permitted some extremely passionate music even if he is singing from a different emotional page than Jane and Rochester. His ecstasy is evangelical.
There were exceptions but at least from the balcony (row Q) it was at times difficult to hear what was being sung. A good synopsis was in the inexpensive concert programme but not a libretto. There was a case for surtitles but the Ruddock is not kitted out for that facility.
Singers came and went from the stage through a door to the LH side. Whoever opened and closed that door had a precise knowledge of the score as the door opened just exactly at the moment the singer needed to leave. It did creak a little during Act I but was silent in Act II - oil and TLC?
I liked the way that in the finale, when after all those tribulations, Jane and Rochester are united, the two singers, for the first time in the evening stood side by side, with Jane entering for the first time from the RH side of the stage. Earlier on, at the end of Act I when they repeatedly sing out "Wonderful!" in conversational echo the effect is nothing if not moving.
None of the singers were impassive. Facial acting was very much the order of the day. All most expressively done.
The music was full of engagement and I enjoyed it enormously. It is torrid at times, often tense and characterised by lapping motifs. Mine are crude first impressions but the music reminded me at times of RVW, more often of Walton's Troilus and Cressida. In fact there were several instances where Walton's soundworld seemed to have lodged strongly whether in echoes of the First Symphony or of the crashing impacts heard in Belshazzar's Feast (Act II sc. 2).
It's a very passionate work and full of heart. There were many very telling moments. These included the way the French Horn three or four times echoes the singers, the sea-swell motion of the string writing and the impression of waves of emotion crashing against obdurate cliff landscapes, the tragic-furious march at the send of Act I Sc. 2, the almost tangible green-leaf outdoor imagery in Act I Sc. 3 as articulated by the orchestra and Jane, trickily intricate rhythms (Act II sc. 2) and the final Act II sc. 3 - an extended (slightly too long for its material, I thought) lyrical essay: nothing emotionally hectoring, bird-song evoked, the voices of Rochester and Jane echoed by the French horn and finishing in something close to a Delian glow rather than a stompingly obvious Puccinian blast.
This was all so well done. I do hope that Woods, the ESO and Somm will look at other neglected English operas with a gift for grand drama. One of the most grievously neglected is Lennox Berkeley's Nelson. For now we can look forward to the release of what is very likely to prove a glowing entry in the annals of recorded English opera.
Jane Eyre - April Fredrick
Edward Rochester - David Stout
Mrs. Fairfax - Clare McCaldin
Revd. St. John Rivers - Mark Milhofer
Mr. Brocklehurst, Governor at Lowood - Gwion Thomas
Sarah, pupil at Lowood - Lesley-Jane Rogers
Leah, housemaid at Thornfield - Lorraine Payne
Rector's Clerk - Joseph Bolger
Richard Mason, - Rochester's brother-in-law - Mark Milhofer
The Rev. Wood, Rector of Thornfield - Alan Fairs
John, manservant at Thornfield - Samuel Oram
Verger of Thornfield - Andrew Randall
Briggs, Mason's Solicitor - Andrew Mayor
Hannah, the Rivers' Housekeeper - Clare McCaldin
Mary Rivers - Lorraine Payne
Diana Rivers - Lesley Jane Rogers