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Jon DEAK (b. 1943)
The Passion of Scrooge (or A Christmas Carol) - an opera (1986-1997) [62:00]
Libretto by Isaiah Sheffer adapted by Jon Deak
William Sharp (baritone/actor), 21st Century Consort / Christopher Kendall, H. Paul Moon (director)
Region: All Regions; 16:9 wide-screen; 5:1 surround sound
Language: English; Subtitles: English
Bonus: black-and-white film of Scrooge (1935) (re-mastered)
ZEN VIOLENCE FILMS DVD 85007 75068 [62:00+60:00]

A range of elements meet in this DVD. The fusion of sound and vision is an obvious given. Here, however, we encounter singing, spoken word, black and white cinema from the 1930s, opera and soliloquy. If you must categorise then 'opera' is the label you could reach for, but its an unruly fit. Moving images from the little-known 1935 black-and-white film of Scrooge form an occasional and atmospheric backdrop to Jon Deak's opera.

Deak's compact opera about Dickens' 1843 novella has been around for a while. It has even had an earlier recording and that again had William Sharp at centre-stage. That disc was issued in 2000 on Innova IN545 (49:40) under an Aaron Copland Fund grant. Given that the opera runs to 62:00 on the DVD, why the time disparity? The reason is that Deak has added a prologue, an entr'acte and start-and-end titles.

As his website worklist shows, Jon Deak has been much stirred by literary originals and his worklist bears witness to music centring on literary figures and monuments. He has written music about Heidi, The Snow Queen, The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow, The Wind in the Willows, Eeyore has a Birthday, Hyde and Jekyll (in that order), Lady Chatterley's Dream, The Call of the Wild, The Hound of the Baskervilles, The Speckled Band and Treasure Island. A native of Hammond, Indiana, Deak's parents were sculptors and painters so he came from an artistically sympathetic family. He studied double bass, was a member of the bass section of the New York Philharmonic, and pursued composition studies at Oberlin, Juilliard, Santa Cecilia and Illinois University. It is said that his great influences have been Salvatore Martirano and John Cage but his music, as heard here, is intricate, busy, determinedly tonal and far from immune to the occasional sweeping melody. His write-up says that "Spending much of his professional life as a performer has no doubt contributed to his interest in what is known as “performance art” — a creation that involves more than simply the notes on the page, that comes alive only in the person of the executants. … the work has a visual and theatrical element that transcends the customary relationship of pitch and rhythm. They are a kind of “Story Theater”". With that in mind the DVD - and one realised by like-minded musicians and steered by a sympathetic director, H Paul Moon, (see review of his documentary on Samuel Barber) - would seem tailor-made as a channel of expression.

Essentially, what you get with this package is, first and foremost, a compact opera shot in colour and lasting one hour. Then, on the same disc comes an hour-long 1935 film nicely restored and adjusted for flicker, luminance, grain and scale. I recognised only one name from the film's cast list: Athene Seyler. The others, for me, have until now been lost in cinema oblivion. As already mentioned, there is a light degree of interaction between the two elements (opera and film) - a little more on that later. The opera is cast in two acts but here begins with a prologue where Deak is seen and heard musing in the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. Shakespeare's ‘Seven Ages of Man’ is unhurriedly recited and each verse is matched to one of the library's windows. The composer then walks the streets, all the while musing on things, and then enters St. Mark’s Episcopal Church where the opera is performed. Deak again ventures into the streets and to Times Square and the Capitol during the entr'acte.

This is an opera but it is not performed in costume. Everyone is in dark concert clothes. The orchestra, the 21st Century Consort, comprises a string quartet and double bassł single wood-winds with some doubling, harp, French horn and a very active percussion section including chains (Marley's ghost) and wind machine. Everything is on the same level: executant musicians, conductor (Christopher Kendall), baritone William Sharp, audience. The orchestra members are arranged in a horseshoe with the conductor at the open end of the 'shoe' and Sharp often at its closed top curve.

The camera moves fluidly around the auditorium - close-up and wide-stage - though not among the audience. Sharp is Scrooge: affable, fearful, crotchety, aggressive. He is the essence of mercurial and lights up the proceedings. He acts his part, sings and speaks. I wonder how much of the work's credit is tied up with Sharp - it is certainly not a role that would benefit from a rigid delivery it needs to be lived and communicated. The whole thing is closer to music theatre than recital but Deak's 'reach' is wide. I can imagine the music suiting fine voices and dramatic talents used to that milieu: Len Cariou, David Kernan, Timothy West (not sure about his singing but he was a profound Beecham) and Julian Ovenden.

Pilgrim's Progress the 'opera' by Vaughan Williams on Bunyan's 'morality' is said to be in the "similitude of a dream". So too with The Passion of Scrooge, which uses carefully calculated dissolves and mixes of moving image from the 1935 film with the opera's performance. The influence of German expressionist images including ghoulish shadows suggests that the film's producers were touched F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. Quite apart from the interpolated Prologue and Entr'acte other elements move together and separate: Deak emotes and conducts extravagantly at one stage with the full score in front of him. Orchestra members become vital 'extras', for example in their laughter and in shivering with 'brrrrr' noises and gestures to underscore the Victorian cold at the start. The opera follows the outline of Dickens' story but rather like sun-flares spins off into a world of its own - as for example when, affectingly, the composer and Sharp are seen wandering through a graveyard.

The opera can be enjoyed at a number of levels. It takes you by the hand through Dickens' seasonal tale. It delights and shakes you with Sharp's performance as singer, actor and skald; he is nothing short of glorious. It lets you into Deak's slightly jaundiced and distant world view. It makes you aware of the Victorian novella as a work extolling self-improvement. It draws parallels between the fallibilities of the world and Scrooge's misanthropy, which is remediable as it turns out. If any of this seems a bit grim then do not worry: the experience glows but goes through stages that have a frisson not that far removed from Peter Ackroyd's London documentaries.

Rob Barnett

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