Brief Encounter – Opera in two acts to a libretto by John Caird [Based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward and the screenplay for the film Brief Encounter by Coward & David Lean]
Laura Jesson – Elizabeth Futral
Alec Harvey – Nathan Gunn
Fred Jesson – Kim Josephson
Myrtle Bagot – Meredith Arwady
Dolly Messiter – Rebekah Camm
Stanley – Adam Cioffari
Beryl – Alicia Gianni
Doctor Graves – James J. Kee
Mary Norton – Jamie Barton
Mrs Rowlandson – Faith Sherman
The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra
Recorded May 2009 at Houston Grand Opera, Houston, Texas
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: August 2011
CD No: DG 477 9351 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 3 minutes
Fair play to André Previn: he has a nose for an operatic subject. As a romantic musician with Hollywood in his DNA he has followed up A Streetcar Named Desire (also recorded, on DG 459 3662) with a second stage-to-celluloid-to-opera-house adaptation; and if Brief Encounter is an unexpected choice, the emotional constraints that drive Noël Coward and David Lean’s tale of stunted love makes it an oddly apt companion-piece to the febrile heat of that earlier Tennessee Williams project.
For this Houston Grand Opera commission the American composer-conductor has collaborated with an English librettist, John Caird, who is probably best known as the original co-director (with Trevor Nunn) of the musical Les Misérables. He turns in a sensitive libretto that honours the source material while shaping it into a compact singing text, albeit one that dots every dramatic I and crosses every narrative T. Yet Caird’s understanding of the opera-writer’s craft is clear from his perceptive booklet essay; besides, the blame for its prolixity is down to the composer, who should have treated the libretto as raw leather and omitted those passages that could (and therefore should) have inspired music that takes the lead rather than dutifully setting. Late in Act One, for example, the guilt-torn heroine Laura sings a wistful yet superfluous aria, ‘When I was a child we lived by the sea’, that undermines the very moment where it sits, namely the protagonists’ mutual acknowledgement of their love.
Previn’s score is lushly romantic, as old-fashioned as Brief Encounter itself but happily untouched by the shade of Rachmaninov with whom the story (in the film version at least) is so indelibly associated. Redolent from elsewhere, though, and just as wine-writers draw on ‘notes’ of other fruits, so we may recognise hints of Copland, Sondheim and especially Samuel Barber, whose Knoxville: Summer of 1915 is never far away. More distractingly, one of Previn’s motifs is an oft-recurring five-note quotation from ‘Make Our Garden Grow’, the finale to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (which John Caird has staged to great acclaim). The musical idiom is blueberry-pie-American, its sun-soaked opulence at odds both with Coward’s grey, smoke-stacked England and with a tale whose high romance grinds against the brittleness of buttoned-up post-war manners.
Brief Encounter tells the simplest of love stories: married woman meets married man, has a guilt-filled whirlwind romance and then lets him leave. The beauty of the film lay in the ordinariness of the lovers and their mundane surroundings, a fact the libretto goes some way to acknowledging; but the overblown scoring flattens out Caird’s attempts at dramatic subtlety. Whereas the film’s director David Lean used Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto as a dramatic vent for the characters’ private anguish, Previn wraps their entire world in a blanket of verdant, swirling harmonies. From the opening bars, dense chromatic string chords spider outwards like Red Maple and cradle the Milford Station café in Appalachian warmth. It’s as wrong as casting Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise in a remake.
There are though rewarding episodes in the score: the lovers’ ‘forgiveness’ duet in Act Two is heart-clawing in its anguish, and the dramatic intricacies of the opera’s final scenes are rich in momentum, colour and contrast. However, too much of the writing is superficially descriptive – an illustration of the libretto rather than a composition fuelled by inspiration. It is a score devoid of dramatic trajectory; I cannot think of a single moment where the music is allowed to define character. It could be argued that some of Caird’s verbal felicities would sit more comfortably in a musical than in a large-scale opera, where the style sledgehammers verbal subtlety; but then why does a small-cast, chorus-free piece need to be quite so grand? If Previn had scored it for, say, string sextet and single winds, the story’s intimacy would have been more effectively rendered and his leading lady could have been sung by a lighter-voiced soprano than Elizabeth Futral (whose character is rarely off the stage and spends two solid hours singing over a full orchestra, which goes some way to excusing a strident performance wherein development and nuance are entirely absent).
The male roles of Alec, Laura’s lover, and her husband Fred are very well taken by respectively Nathan Gunn and Kim Josephson. Gunn confirms himself as a major talent with this fine performance. Alas, the minor parts are so excruciatingly afflicted with diction-coach-itis that one half-expects Dick Van Dyke to pop into Myrtle’s ‘caff’ for a ‘noice cuppa tea’. As for the members of the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, they respond magnificently to the confident conducting of Patrick Summers. It would be exciting to hear these fine musicians resurrect some neglected American operas – Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti maybe. They certainly do Previn proud.