Charles FUSSELL (b. 1938)
Cymbeline: Drama after Shakespeare (1984 rev. 1996)
Aliana de la Guardia (soprano); Matthew Dibattista (tenor); David Salsbery Fry (narrator)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 2016, Futura Productions, Roslindale, USA
BMOP SOUND 1059 [55:02]
The altogether admirable Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP), under its enterprising director, Gil Rose, exists to promote and record new and recent American (i.e. from the USA) works. It is a kind of successor to the Louisville First Edition Recordings and an American equivalent to NMC in the UK. As orchestras tend to programme older and established works and audiences are often suspicious of new ones, this project, and others like it, perform a valuable service in getting worthwhile recent works into circulation.
Charles Fussell has had a long connection with Boston and the BMOP have already recorded a number of his works. Cymbeline, described as a Drama after Shakespeare is, by BMOP standards, quite an old work, dating originally from 1984, though revised in 1996. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s four late Romances – the others are Pericles, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. It is a strange play, not widely popular, and rarely staged. The main plot concerns Cymbeline, a legendary king of Britain, and his decision to withhold tribute due to Rome. There are two subplots. The first concerns Imogen, the king’s daughter by a previous marriage. The king’s present wife wanted her to marry the boorish Cloten, her son by a previous marriage, thereby strengthening his claim to the throne. However, she has instead already married Posthumus, who as result has been banished. Iachimo persuades Posthumus into a foolish bet that he can prove Imogen unfaithful by seducing her. By hiding himself in her bedchamber Iachimo gets circumstantial details about Imogen which convince the gullible Posthumus that he has done so. The second subplot concerns the king’s two sons, who were stolen away in infancy and are being brought up by Belarius, a banished lord. Despite the fearsomely complicated plot and a very rapid denouement, all ends happily.
Fussell saw a performance in 1983 which led him to compose what is in effect a dramatic cantata with a number of unusual features: there is a narrator, who takes us through the story, somewhat simplified, and fifteen musical numbers. There are only two soloists, a soprano and a tenor, who take all necessary parts. The text consists of passages from the original play. The two songs Hark, hark, the lark and Fear no more the heat o’th’sun, which are the best-known parts of the play, are of course included. The vocal writing owes a debt to Britten, as indeed do most musical settings of English words since his time, and tends to be declamatory, while the music moves more rapidly. The scoring is for an ensemble of ten players, of which two are percussionists and one is, of all instruments, a bagpipe. Fussell chose this to evoke ‘the remote, barbaric period which Shakespeare creates and the wild but festive mood of the story.’ This is only the second concert work I have come across to use the instrument, the other being Peter Maxwell Davies’ Orkney Wedding with Sunrise.
This is all very well, but how good is the piece? Here, I have to report disappointment. The music is competent, always pleasant but not arresting. It never catches fire, not even in the two songs, which were, after all, written for musical setting. Part of the problem is the whole concept of writing the work with a narrator, so that I kept feeling that it really wanted to be an opera but was being restrained. The other is that Fussell is far too respectful of Shakespeare’s lines. This may be an odd thing to say, and I should declare that I am an ardent Shakespearean and a particular admirer of this play, but a musical setting needs to take Shakespeare’s text by the scruff of the neck to make something which makes its own sense as a musical work. This is what Boito did in his librettos for Verdi’s Otello and Falstaff and, more recently, Thomas Adès has done in his version of The Tempest. Shakespeare can take any amount of rough treatment, as is shown by a number of recent productions of his plays. I was delighted that Fussell was captivated by the play, but he has not really done enough with it to justify a musical setting. For those who really care for the play I would refer them to Zemlinsky’s incidental music (review).
I have no quarrel with the performances. Aliana de la Guardia and Matthew Dibattista cope well with the vocal lines, which contain a great deal of tough late-Shakespearean verse. The ensemble, conducted by Gil Rose, plays with alertness and sympathy. The recording is a little close but it means that the words come over clearly. The booklet is helpful and contains the complete text. Clearly Rose believes in the work. I wish he had been able to convince me that this was a worthwhile project.