Ned Rorem at Bridewell

Ned Rorem
Fables (1970) – five very short operas based on poems of Jean de la Fontaine
Three Sisters who are not Sisters (1968) – a melodrama in one act by Gertrude Stein
The Robbers (1956) – a melodrama in one scene, libretto by the composer, based on Chaucer’s ’The Pardoner’s Tale’
Hearing (1966) – a cycle of love songs based on the poems of Kenneth Koch

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

Reviewed by: David Wordsworth

Reviewed: 18 September, 2001
Venue: Bridewell Theatre, London

“That the music of Ned Rorem, America’s finest living songwriter, is hardly performed in this country is as baffling as the absence of domestic air-conditioning and insect screens” – so said The Independent on Sunday after the New World Opera Group’s previous production of Rorem’s ’mini operas’ earlier in the year.

With his output of something like 400 songs, large amounts of chamber, orchestral and choral music, as well as being of a distinguished and sometimes controversial diarist, Ned Rorem (born 1923) occupies a unique and extraordinary position in American cultural life. Never afraid to follow his own path, pretty much ignoring the musical innovations of the last fifty years and more, it is interesting to see how, at the beginning of the 21st century, he is emerging as perhaps a rather more significant figure than people may have thought. Singers of the calibre of Susan Graham and Brian Asawa have recently devoted whole CDs to his songs, and his music is again appearing with increasing frequency on concert programmes in the US.

He has found a determined champion in Anthony Davie and his enthusiastic group of young singers that make up the New World Opera Group. It is difficult to believe that these little pieces have not been heard in the UK until this year. Scored with only piano accompaniment (played with assured authority by Anthony Davie himself), they are well within the capabilities of small and college groups. Are they all operas though?

Fables consists of five very short operas in which the singers take the part of animals (perhaps the nearest equivalent known to English audiences would be Aesop’s tales). The first tells of a lion in love with a shepherdess, who has his claws clipped and teeth filed blunt in order to win her heart, only to be attacked by dogs and killed as he can put up no defence. In the other operas the singers gamely became frogs, birds, a fox and various other creatures felled by the plague. (Not such an upbeat evening this!) The production was simple, though one could not help coming to the conclusion that this was a collection of unvaried songs with staging forced upon them.

Much more successful was Three Sisters who are not Sisters, an absurd, bleak little comedy from the pen of Gertrude Stein, consisting of several nasty murders whose perpetrators and victims could not decide whether they were dead or not (Ikid you not!). Here was something to stage – Rachel Fisher,Jennifer Fisher (oddly enough sisters in real life) and Sarah Moule(although suffering from an obviously nasty cold) enjoyed themselves as the sisters; Nicholas Mulroy and Philip Kay played two rather large schoolboys. Rorem’s pointed characterisation, elegant vocal writing and an eye for the wit, morbidity and gruesome nature of Stein’s text made for the most all-round entertaining thirty minutes of the evening. All the singers had the essential comic timing down to a fine art. This piece deserves much wider exposure.

The Robbers – once everyone supposed to be present on stage, was – is rather more predictable; therein lies the problem, Chaucer or no Chaucer. One can pretty much come to the conclusion that the two evil robbers will get their just desserts after killing off their apprentice! Still, there is some lovely dialogue, and musical touches, between the three singing characters (another meets his end before singing a note!). Robert Davies’s tall, imposing and threatening Leader made a particularly strong impression.

Hearing is described as a cycle of love songs, and brings more problems. Love songs they are, very beautiful, heartfelt, here finely sung – but opera? Walking around looking longingly at each other doesn’t make an opera, however hard one tries. That said, the music is so perfectly suited to the words, the vocal lines so pleasing and natural to the ear that one should just sit back and enjoy rather than wait for something dramatic to happen. All the performers made significant contributions here, althoughthe by-now completely incapacitated Sarah Moule just sat on a bench whilst Davie played her song alone – couldn’t someone have sung it from the wings? Most striking of all was the last song, itself entitled ’Hearing’, beautifully sung by the young baritone, Sam Evans. According to the programme he was making his operatic debut; he seems to have everything – looks, voice, musicality and stage presence. I have no doubt we will be hearing much more from him.

All in all, despite reservations about the staging rather than the music, a most enjoyable evening. What a pleasure to hear this refreshingly honest music given a platform in the UK at last. All power to Anthony Davie and his company. They continue to champion Rorem at the Regent Hall, London, on December 14th with the UK premiere of the cantata, King Midas, and some chamber music. Hopefully, the resurgence of interest in thisfascinating composer will continue in other quarters too.

  • The New World Opera Group’s previous staging of Ned Rorem was reviewed for Classical Source by Richard Whitehouse – click here to read

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