Wednesday, June 28, 2006

If you don't go to opera for pretty tunes ...

Michael Berkeley's name seems to recur On An Overgrown Path. He is the son of Lennox Berkeley, presents one of the best programmes on the radio, is Benjamin Britten's godson, and most importantly is a major composing talent in his own right. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis have just given the US premiere of his new opera Jane Eyre, and here is the review from STLtoday.

The story is compressed beyond mere telescoping. The score is musically and dramatically intense. But if you don't go to opera primarily for pretty tunes and costumes, Michael Berkeley's "Jane Eyre" might just prove to be your cup of tea. Seen at its U.S. premiere Sunday night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, "Jane Eyre" doesn't pull any punches. At 80 minutes, it may be too tightly written for the drama it explores. David Malouf's libretto, from Charlotte Bronte's classic novel, jettisons all of Jane's early story and most details of her time at Thornfield. If it's been a few years since you read the book (or saw a movie treatment), be sure to read the synopsis before the lights go down.


Berkeley's score, however, effectively conveys Thornfield's menace, its hidden mistress' madness, Mr. Rochester's anguish and Jane's evolving emotions. It opens effectively with the low wind instruments and builds spikily to the climax. Berkeley quotes briefly from Britten's "The Turn of the Screw" and frequently from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor." He and Malouf have drawn a not-altogether-convincing connection between criminally insane Bertha Rochester and unstable Lucy Ashton, who went mad when forced to marry the wrong tenor and murdered her groom on their wedding night. I'm not sure a close reading of Bronte supports that conclusion, but it makes Bertha a far more interesting and sympathetic character than the raging beast who's usually portrayed.

Opera Theatre artistic director Colin Graham has staged "Jane" for the maximum dramatic impact. He is ably assisted by Erhard Rom's simple sets and atmospheric projections in bringing out the story's claustrophobic nature and the house's Gothic gloom. The excellent cast is headed by soprano Kelly Kaduce in the title role. She captured both Jane's matter-of-factness and her anguish at the discovery of Rochester's proposed bigamy. Singing with a large, clear, well-produced voice, she brought the character to life.Production shots sow Kelly Kaduce (Jane Eyre), Scott Hendricks (Mr Rochester, and Elizabeth Batton (Mrs Rochester)

Baritone Scott Hendricks brooded nicely and sang strongly and with presence. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Batton as Bertha Rochester made the role her own, with a rich, dark voice and edgy air of madness. As Mrs. Fairfax, mezzo-soprano Robynne Redmon made clear both the housekeeper's essential decency and her role in Rochester's deception. Soprano Adele Reiter sang sweetly as Adele and made a convincing child. Jane Greenwood's costumes were perfectly in period, and perfect for these characters. In the pit, conductor Andreas Mitisek and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra handled the difficult, complicated score with aplomb.


* St Louis Symphony blog via this link.

Image credits: Michael Berkeley - BBC, St Louis production shots © 2006 Cory Weaver from theoperacritic.com. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath atdot co dot uk hotmail
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1 comment:

Pliable said...

The review from the Dallas Morning News is more perceptive, particularly in its Britten references:

The new opera's compact scale, musical language and even its story suggest comparisons with Benjamin Britten, who was Mr. Berkeley's godfather. Mr. Berkeley's father was another eminent British composer, Sir Lenox Berkeley.

One is especially reminded of Britten's The Turn of the Screw: gloomy manor house, often-absentee landlord, naive young governess, earnest housekeeper, high-spirited young girl, malign ghostly presence. And Mr. Berkeley's score suggests a richer, more complex updating of Britten's manner, with more intricate wreathings of multiple musical strands.

The opera opens with dark growls and grumblings from double bass, contrabassoon and bass clarinet, later answered with sinister high keenings. Woozy string slides evoke the otherworldly scenes of Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream. A couple of not-quite-right dances heighten the sense of disequilibrium.

Mr. Malouf and Mr. Berkeley seem to have imagined Mrs. Rochester, the psychotic wife locked away in the attic, as a real presence. But Colin Graham's staging, with designer Erhard Rom's higgledy-piggledy big panels and fuzzy projections, made her more ambiguous, like the ghosts in The Turn of the Screw. Mezzo Elizabeth Batton admirably captured her confused obsession and "dark as molasses" voice.

Kelly Kaduce was the very personification of Jane's decency, her soprano gleaming and glowing. Scott Hendricks brought a pleasantly burly baritone, and a presence balancing the rough-hewn and the tragic, to the role of Edward Rochester. Elizabeth Reiter was a bright, perky Adèle, but with an apt strangeness. Robynne Redmon was the sturdy housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax.

Conductor Andreas Mitisek got capable, responsive playing from members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, but one could imagine a tauter, more finely honed performance. The blurry projections looked amateurish, and the first few minutes of the June 16 performance were marred by supertitle malfunctions.

There's about 90 percent of a very good opera here, with a strong tale and well-wrought, richly evocative music. But the happy ending, with Mr. Rochester and Jane reunited, comes out of the clear blue, without adequate preparation or transition. An extra five or 10 minutes might help a lot.


With thanks to Bronteblog for the link.