Ned Rorem – 3 one act operas

Ned Rorem
Three one-act operas –
Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (all UK premieres)

The New World Opera Group
Alison Brown, director
Anthony Davie, musical director/piano

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 21 February, 2001
Venue: Bridewell Theatre, London

Now in his 78th year, Ned Rorem has long had the reputation of being the last great composer of ’art-song’, and his output of several hundred constitutes a vital continuation of the French branch of a genre otherwise left vacant since the death of Poulenc. Orchestrally too, Rorem has had intermittent success, with Bernstein and Stokowski among his erstwhile advocates. In terms of opera, however, he has made little impact, perhaps because his output here has tended to shy away from the ’grand stage’, again emulating French examples in its intimacy of scale and subject matter.

Each of the one-acters on the present triple-bill requires only a piano to complement its ensemble of singers; the often elaborate, though always tonal harmonies and textures of the instrumentalist providing a rich context for the elegant and incisive parlando vocal writing. This strategy was heard at its most finely-crafted in Fables (1970), described as ’Five very short operas set to poems by Jean la Fontaine’. The Aesopian derivation of the texts was clear enough, given a wry, decadent twist in Marianne Moore’s racy translations, and enhanced by Alison Brown’s setting at a chic cocktail party; the animalist instincts of the protagonists breaking through their veneer of sophistication. Vocally things were variable: Rupert Jennings’s light tenor didn’t project well as the narrator in ’The Lion in Love’ which began the sequence, though his contributions as the ass in ’The Animals Sick of the Plague’ had the requisite poignancy. The frequent assembling of groups of singers into a Greek Chorus was skilfully brought off, and the lightness of touch essential in this music was only occasionally lacking.

More than could be said for Bertha (1968), a setting of Kenneth Koch’s play examining the negative consequences of absolute monarchy – namely barbarism through intolerance. The breakdown of civil society as the ’mad queen’ vanquishes first her enemies, then her subjects, only to turn her country over to the barbarians so as to effect further victories, is obviously intended as an allegory on the social and political morality of ’advanced’ nations. Not that you’d easily have guessed this in the leaden high farce on offer here, levelling out character to a few stale stereotypes – not least Bertha herself, passably sung by Moira Young. Her representation as Margaret Thatcher at the close could only have amused the most dull-witted of audiences. This is clearly a stagework which needs much more considered handling of its mise-en-scene.

Things looked up markedly in Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (1968). The text, in which five children act out a game of murder, is typical Gertrude Stein in its calculated wordplay, and Rorem’s treatment evinces more than a touch of Virgil Thomson in its pert repetitions and formal patterning. The sense of metaphysical import lurking behind apparently harmless play-acting came through strongly in this presentation, simply and effectively directed by Brown. From a strong quintet of soloists, Sarah Moule and Jenny Fisher particularly impressed as singers with a natural sense of stage movement and character projection. The whole performance conveyed self-contained but genuine emotion that Rorem has effectively made his own.

A special mention for Anthony Davie, whose championing of Rorem, and of mid-century American music in general, was a feature of his excellent work with The LONDON 20 chamber orchestra. Directing, sometimes demonstratively so, from the piano, his playing may have lacked subtlety but impressed through its accuracy and impulsive commitment. Whatever the limitations of these stagings, the New World Opera Group can take credit for making some diverting ensemble pieces available to London audiences.

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