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Michael NYMAN (b. 1944)
The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1986)
Matthew Trevi˝o (bass) ‒ Dr P.; Rebecca Sj÷wall (soprano) ‒ Mrs P.; Ryan MacPherson (tenor) ‒ Dr S., the Neurologist
Members of Nashville Opera Orchestra/Dean Williamson
rec. Ocean Way, Nashville, Tennessee, 23‒25 May 2014
NAXOS 8.660398 [58:08]

“Neurology’s favourite term is deficit. The word denotes impairment, or incapacity of neurological function. Loss of language, memory, vision, dexterity, identity and a myriad of other lacks and losses of specific function.” One could not find many opera libretti that begin with words that would seem more at home in The Lancet; but, then again, Michael Nyman’s The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat is no ordinary opera. It is based on an essay of the same name published in 1985 by the distinguished neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks (1933‒2015), who, alongside Christopher Rawlence and Michael Morris, was also responsible for Nyman’s libretto. Largely dependent as it is on notes made by Sacks about an actual case, the opera has no real plot as such. It simply depicts two meetings between a neurologist (called Dr S.), a patient, and his wife. The first meeting takes place in the neurologist’s surgery, the second, longer one in the patient’s home. During these encounters it gradually becomes clear that the patient, a distinguished singer and teacher called Dr P., is suffering from a condition called visual agnosia, which in essence prevents him from recognizing or understanding what he sees. Both his hearing and, bizarrely, his actual eyesight are fine, his voice and musicality are undimmed, and he can play a mean game of imaginary chess; but his “mental blindness” results, for example, in him asking directions of a parking meter, trying to shake hands with a music stand and, heartbreakingly, thinking his wife is actually his hat. At one point in the opera the neurologist asserts that there is “no trace of dementia” in Dr P.’s behaviour; but Oliver Sacks subsequently stated that the symptoms suffered by the real-life patient on whose case the work is based were related to the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease – an insight which, for many listeners, will lend this twenty-year-old opera an eerily contemporary feel.

Knowledge of this clinical background might lead the prospective listener to expect an unrelievedly grim work. But that is not really the case. Not only are there moments of black, indeed Kafka-esque humour, but there is much also about compassion and love. The neurologist, for example, could hardly be more different from, say, the cruel, inhuman sawbones of Berg’s Wozzeck. At the very beginning he expresses dissatisfaction with neurology’s tendency to focus on “everything that patients aren’t, and nothing that they are”, wishing instead to “restore the human subject at the centre”; and he retains a genuine interest in and compassion for Dr P., assuring him, for example, at the end that “I cannot tell you what is wrong… But I know what is right.”

Then there is Mrs P., the singer’s wife. She emerges as a thoroughly sympathetic character, who is forced to undergo an emotional journey into which the listener is drawn and with which he or she can fully identify. Initially Mrs P. seems in denial (or perhaps is simply being over-protective), when she tells the neurologist that her husband is “as fit as a fiddle” and just “makes silly mistakes, more like practical jokes”. Later on, though, we become more clearly aware of her very real love and admiration for her husband: she continually praises him and his singing, expresses vicariously hurt pride when the neurologist suggests that changes in his painting style are due to his illness rather than any process of artistic maturation, and cannot hide her all too understandable fears for his future.

Finally, this opera is to some extent also a hymn of praise to the power of music. Music is, quite literally, all that keeps Dr P. going: his musical gifts are still very much intact; he sings to himself all the time; and, as the neurologist says at the end, in essence he uses music to organize his life, so that the only relevant prescription can be: “More music”. Not, of course, that this can lead to an entirely happy ending. The opera’s last words, spoken by the neurologist in retrospect, are: “To this inner soundtrack he moved, he acted, Fluently. Cogently. But, when the music stopped… so did he”. So music can’t be or do everything; but while there’s music, there’s hope.

As to Nyman’s music ‒ well, predictably enough, it consists in the main of recitative-like vocal lines supported by a repetitively chugging chamber group consisting of two violins, a viola, two cellos, a harp and a piano. But there is much more to it than that. There are certainly some operatic subject-matters to which a basically minimalist style would not be suited; but here it works well. Nyman’s steady rhythms and additive processes here create a sense of inexorable nervous tension, which has the effect of reflecting very vividly the gradual but relentless loss of Dr P.’s powers of cognition. By way of contrast, this nervous tension is frequently interrupted by slower, more lightly scored passages, which tend to accompany reflections on proceedings by the neurologist, but can also involve less predictable elements, such as a full performance of Schumann’s ‘Ich grolle nicht’ from Dichterliebe, which Dr P. delivers to his wife’s piano accompaniment. A particularly good example of Nyman’s ability to vary his musical material within a consistent style comes in a five-minute passage towards the end of the scene in the neurologist’s surgery: the tempo accelerates as Dr P. describes the “darting details” (a sunflower, a snowflake, a map of Dresden, a dinosaur) that flash fleetingly into his mind; this gives way first to an almost arioso passage where he imagines a river and an idyllic guest house, and then to a more heavily scored, faster one that climaxes in his bizarre yet humanly tragic misidentification of his hat. Cumulatively, the music gives expression to a mixture of ongoing tension and emotional ups and downs which will strike many listeners as sensitively reflecting the experience of observing and accompanying a person afflicted with a degenerative illness.

The new Naxos performance of Nyman’s work is based on a production given by Nashville Opera in November 2013. Indeed, one of its functions is clearly to provide a souvenir of that occasion: there is a brief note by the director, John Hoomes, and a veritable smorgasbord of credits naming everyone even remotely associated with the production, from the pianist’s page turner through the make-up artist to every conceivable luminary of the Nashville Opera Association. That said, there is nothing to suggest that the CD itself was recorded ‘live’: the sound is of excellent ‘studio’ quality, and there are no audience or stage noises.

The three young singers generally acquit themselves well. Curiously, given that one sings the Duke of Mantua and the other Sparafucile, the (pleasingly) baritonal tenor, Ryan MacPherson and the bass, Matthew Trevi˝o initially sound rather like each other – a situation which isn’t helped by the seeming misattribution of some of their lines in the online libretto. But that impression doesn’t really last, and both clearly have the measure of their roles, combining expressiveness with excellent diction. The rather brittle, fluttery soprano of Rebecca Sjowńll will not please all ears, but she gives a vivid performance as the unfortunate wife, rising well to her occasional ‘big moments’ ‒ such as her anguish when, following a period of relative lucidity, Dr P. fails to recognize a photograph of his mother, and her anger when the neurologist speaks seemingly unkindly of her husband’s painting. Dean Williamson and his musicians give a thoroughly sound and sensitive account of the score, though one which seems to me rather to underplay its humour.

Overall, it would be idle to pretend that this new recording supersedes that on CBS Masterworks (MK 44669) featuring such seasoned campaigners as Emile Belcourt and Frederick Westcott, and conducted by the composer. I have seen no evidence, however, to suggest that this 1987 issue remains generally available, or that there have been any other recordings since. In that context especially, the Nashville recording can be warmly welcomed and recommended. One could do with slightly older singers, and the performance as a whole perhaps lacks something in characterful individuality; on the other hand, there is nothing seriously wrong with it, the sound is good, and – above all – it restores to the catalogue a highly unusual work of real craftsmanship and considerable depth.

Nigel Harris



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