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Alma DEUTSCHER (b. 2005)
Cinderella, Opera in 4 Acts
Vanessa Becerra (Cinderella)
Jonas Hacker (Prince)
Nathan Stark (King)
Stacey Tappan (Griselda)
Karin Mushegain (Zibaldona)
Mary Dunleavy (Stepmother)
Claudia Chapa (Emeline)
Brian James Myer (Minister)
Helen Deutscher (Flower Girl)
Alma Deutscher (violin, piano, organ solo)
Opera San José Orchestra, Chorus, and Dancers / Jane Glover
English with English and German subtitles
rec. Opera San José, 2018
SONY CLASSICAL 19075895049 DVD [2 discs: 150 mins]

“Music should speak to the heart, and not to the head. “ I can easily imagine Alma quoting Sir Arthur Sullivan’s manifesto, and indeed she indirectly did when she confessed that “music should be beautiful”. But can a child really compose a large-scale opera, including the writing of a convincing libretto, and everything else such a venture entails? If in doubt, you should watch Cinderella, for in Alma’s case the answer has to be yes. Alma Deutscher is 14 years old and was born into a musical family. She has been playing the piano since the age of 2, the violin since she was 3, and started composing soon after. Her sister, too, is very musical. Cinderella is her first opera, which she started composing in 2013. This endeavour and other more recent compositions clearly show that she is moving away from the image of child prodigy and starting to become recognized as composer in her own right.

Cinderella is, not surprisingly, based on the well-known fairy tale. However, Alma amended it and gave it her own personal twist, intertwining it with her own fantasy world of Transylvanian. The whole story is quite convincing and coherent and gives the old tale a different taste, even featuring some witty moments, such as mockery of modern poetry. In Alma’s libretto, Cinderella’s stepmother is in charge of the local opera house, her two daughters being sopranos with no talent at all. Cinderella is made to copy parts for performances but is a formidable composer at heart and tunes keep coming to her mind without cessation. Clearly, Cinderella’s role is modelled on Alma. This becomes especially evident when Cinderella composes a song on stage and the audience is given a peep into Alma’s process of setting words to music. And voilà, at the end of the scene there we have it – a perfect balanced and wonderful melodic song, which one might as well call a Lied. When Cinderella meets the prince at the royal ball, she sings this song to him, not realizing that it was he who wrote the words. After Cinderella leaves in a hurry, it is a fragment of the song that lets him finally find her. The marriage scene features both an organ improvisation by Alma played live on stage as well as the anthem of the fictional kingdom of Transylvanian. It is astonishing to see this gifted composer not only shining in many distinct styles, but also as a performer on a whole bunch of different instruments – and this is before taking into account her young age.

Admittedly, due to the fairy tale theme and scenery (and probably also the fact that this recording was made at the Californian production) one cannot help comparing the spectacle to one of the early Disney movies – especially the grand chorus. Indeed, some of Alma’s compositions compare with the best that classical Disney composers could have dreamt up. However, there is more to Alma’s music and I cannot wait to hear more of her compositions. Cinderella is a very worthy work indeed and thoroughly crafted, with the odd gem hidden inside. Spherical strings right at the beginning of the overture prepare us for the fairy tale, then like the summer breeze, a most romantic tune flies through the air. Then there is the marvellously dramatic When the Day Falls into Darkness with its spine-creeping effect as well as the showpiece, which she so very cleverly lets Cinderella elaborate on stage. With so much tuneful and danceable music in Cinderella, I would love to hear a ballet by Alma some day.

The first version of Alma’s Cinderella was completed in 2015 for chamber orchestra, which she subsequently amended for orchestra (20 parts) for the premiere at Vienna in 2016 under the patronage of Zubin Mehta (where it premiered to a German libretto). For the US premier, she revised the score for large orchestra. All of this was done with the utmost skill and feeling for orchestral colours. The US premier also saw its first recording, made possible by the Packard Humanities Institute, which invited Alma to stage Cinderella with the Opera San José, of which it has been a major supporter since 2004. It has also partially funded the renovation of the California Theatre which is now home to Opera San Jose. Conductor Jane Glover and the Opera San José Orchestra and Chorus do Alma’s work justice, although the sound quality of the recording as such could be a bit better. Vanessa Becerra convinces as Cinderella, as does Jonas Hacker as the Prince. Karin Mushegain as Zibaldona and especially Stacey Tappan as Griselda do a great job in portraying the more or less talent-free pretenders the stepmother’s daughters are.

What is most enchanting of all is the fact that – despite its musical perfection – Cinderella is clearly the vision of a young girl who had the chance to see her fairy-tale become reality, and thus allowing the beholder to rejoice in her blissful world. No doubt, critical voices will become louder within the next years when Alma sticks to her love of tonal, beautiful music. Luckily, she seems determined to continue on her innate path, and this is exactly the right thing to do: “The best thing would be if people stopped telling me how it is allowed or not allowed to compose in the 21st century. I hope they will have stopped counting my dissonances. And I hope that in ten years’ time, it will not be considered a crime to want to compose beautiful music.”

Max Burgdörfer

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