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Poul RUDERS (b. 1949)
The Thirteenth Child (2016)
Hjarne, King of Frohagord – Matt Boehler (bass)
Drokan, Regent of Hauven – Ashraf Sewailam (bass-baritone)
Queen Gertrude and Ghost of Gertrude – Tamara Mumford (mezzo-soprano)
Prince Frederic of Hauven and Toke, Prince of Frohagord – Alasdair Kent (tenor)
Princess Lyra – Sarah Shafer (soprano)
Benjamin, Prince of Frohagord – David Portillo (tenor)
Corbin, Prince of Frohagord – Alex Rosen (bass)
Choral soloist – Amber Evans (soprano)
Bridge Academy Singers/Amber Evans
Odense Symphony Orchestra/David Starobin, Benjamin Shwartz
rec. 2016-18, Carl Nielsen Hall, Odense, Denmark; American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York; New Rochelle Studios, New Rochelle, USA
BRIDGE 9527 [77:48]

The Thirteenth Child is an opera in two acts, seven scenes and four interludes. The story, which has its origins in a Grimms’ fairy tale, is a convoluted one. A lot happens in a short time and you’d be well advised to get to know the plot before hearing the work or seeing it on stage. The libretto is by Becky and David Starobin, who run Bridge Records. David Starobin is also listed as conductor, along with Benjamin Shwartz, two conductors because the recording was interrupted part way through, to be completed more than two years later and on another continent. A visit to the Bridge website reveals Volume 15 of their Poul Ruders Edition, a fine demonstration of a record label’s faith in a contemporary composer.

In the first scene we meet Hjarne, the King of Frohagord, and the opera’s villain, his cousin, Drokan, who hopes to usurp the throne. Drokan warns that Hjarne’s twelve sons, who are playing innocently in the garden, will one day rise up against him and seize his kingdom. Queen Gertrude is pregnant, and Hjarne, terrified that Drokan’s warning will come to pass, implores her to produce, as their thirteenth child, a girl. Only she will wear the crown. During a short orchestral interlude the action moves on by eighteen years. The thirteenth child was indeed a girl, but she and her twelve brothers mysteriously disappeared. Now the King is dead, and at his funeral the Princess, Lyra, reappears. Also present is Drokan and his son, the Prince of Hauven, Frederic. He immediately falls in love with Lyra, whereas his father continues to dream of seizing the throne of Frohagord.

By now, twenty minutes or so into the work, the listener has established that the musical language, though modern, is relatively conservative and accessible. There are, however, a number of unusual features. Hjarne’s vocal lines, for example exploit the extreme ranges of the singer’s voice, from the deepest bass notes to high falsetto, employed for expressive purposes that are no doubt clear to the composer but which may escape the listener. This does not render them less attractive, however, and the part is so well taken by Matt Boehler that we are sorry his character dies at the end of the first scene. Ashraf Sewailam, as Drokan, is also very fine. Words come through clearly from both singers, but their voices are quite similar and one needs to follow the text, provided in the booklet, to know who is singing. Another unusual feature, and a very striking one, is the chorus’s song of mourning in the second scene, a series of common chords passed from one section to another, one word, and sometimes one syllable, at a time.

The third scene sees Queen Gertrude on her deathbed. She explains to Lyra why her twelve brothers, of whom Lyra was unaware, were sent away, and that she, Lyra, was sent away also for her own safety. Gertrude has heard nothing from her sons since that day, and implores Lyra to find them and heal the wrongs and the pain that have beset the kingdom. Her death, and Lyra’s promise that follows, give rise to an extended passage of lyrical music, where Lyra could almost be Anne Trulove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, so steadfast and good is she. Listeners might find that the names Copland and Samuel Barber also come to mind during this scene. Those in fear of modern opera have little to fear.

There are many magical moments in this work. One of them is the orchestral and choral introduction to Act 2 as Lyra walks through a dark forest in search of her brothers. She falls upon Benjamin, the youngest, who has been left at home, and this leads to a comic passage where the eleven others announce what they want for dinner after a long day’s work. Pretty swiftly, all twelve are transformed into ravens, though they reappear later to rescue Lyra from death before regaining their human form. Benjamin is wounded and dies, and by his selfless action the darkness that has haunted the kingdom for so long is dispelled. The opera ends with a deft theatrical and musical pay-off that incites another comparison to Stravinsky’s masterpiece.

This recording was made, unusually, before the opera was staged, and it would be fascinating to see how it works in the theatre. The pace and narrative drive are convincing, and the different characters are well established in the music the composer has given them to sing. Sarah Shafer, as Lyra, has an attractive, clear voice and inhabits her character with real feeling. Her resolve at the end of Act 1 and her distress at Benjamin’s death are touchingly projected. Tamara Mumford is no less convincing as Lyra’s mother and, later, her voice heavily processed, her own ghost. Alasdair Kent and David Portillo in the two tenor roles are both excellent. There is a team spirit that can only reflect the cast’s commitment to the work. The orchestral playing is first class, and the overall quality of the performance is all the more remarkable when one considers the circumstances under which the recording was made.

You may, as I did, find aspects of this short opera perplexing at first. It is certainly a most unusual work. But I enjoy it more at each hearing and can commend it to any opera lover whose interests extend beyond another Trovatore or Tosca.

William Hedley

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