Orfeo in Idaho

By Barry O’Neal

The New York Virtuoso Singers, Harold Rosenbaum, conductor: Two Modern Settings of Orpheus and Eurydice with Richard Stoltzman, clarinet, the Artemis Chamber Ensemble, David Arnold, baritone, Wendy Baker, soprano and Nathan, Bahny, narrator; Peter Norton Symphony Space, February 13, 2010

It is rare in the life of a reporter of the concert music scene in New York and environs, to come upon a major discovery. Therefore thanks are due to Harold Rosenbaum and his group, The New York Virtuoso Singers, for their concert on February 13, 2010 which gave New York a chance to hear an extended concert selection from Marie Nelson Bennett’s opera Orpheus Lex (not a world premiere if only concert selections). The opera, in two acts, was written by the octogenarian composer over a period of twenty years and finished just four years ago. It is a traditional “number” opera, with clear cut arias, duets, choruses and interludes, On the basis of this sixty minute excerpt with bridging narration, it is a magnificent piece, full of heart-rending music, generously melodic and extraordinarily well written for chamber orchestra, solo voices and chorus. Orpheus Lex (Lex meaning law, as used here) sets the familiar Orpheus tale in a remote cabin on a river in Idaho, where Orpheus, a popular folk singer, has retired. The libretto by David Krane seems to be excellent, plain spoken and poetic but without pretension. He uses a basically simple direct vocabulary in a fresh and expressive way. The premise is that in order to stay together, Orpheus and Eurydice must not recognize or remember one another. She emerges from the river, each time she returns to him, and disappears the moment he begins to remember their previous encounter. The end of the opera recapitulates the opening with Orpheus singing “Red River Valley,” as he did when the opera began when Eurydice emerged from the river yet again (in fact the opening arpeggiated phrase of the folk song serves as a motive throughout the piece). Ms.Bennett’s opera, in its full-length form is in two acts and lasts about two hours.

Bennett studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale University and returned to her native Utah to get her PhD at the University of Utah. One heard occasional echoes of Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Benjamin Britten, even Alban Berg, but the overall flavor of the piece is French (Ravel in particular, and at times Messiaen) especially in its unusual clear prosody. Rarely does Bennett allow the accent of a word to fall in the wrong place. Her vocal writing is assured. She leans toward a syllabic approach to text setting, but grants her singers the opportunity for melismatic singing where appropriate. The arias for Eurydice (a soprano part) are particularly lovely and full of character. When in her first Act aria, “Lists,” she recalls her time in the underworld, the music becomes chromatic and the vocal line anguished. Her final solo, “I want to get ready” was very moving and harmonically straightforward, with a modal coloration. The soprano here was Wendy Baker and she sang with a marvelous soulfulness. Hers is a light voice, but well placed, and it soared over the sizable chamber orchestra when necessary. David Arnold, a well-known veteran, was the baritone Orpheus. While his voice may not be as lustrous as it once was, he is a master at articulating words and one almost didn’t need the libretto, helpfully provided in the program, to understand him. The chorus, often confined to background matter (humming, singing vowel sounds and discretely echoing the solo voices) is given two sizable sections of its own in the 2nd Act (“Wandered” and “Never”), where the harmonic richness suggests Messiaen at times. The New York Virtuoso Singers were very polished in these sections. The orchestra too, has some fine, well-wrought interludes notably the final music of Act 1 (“That Young Interlude”), which effectively continues the waltz-like character of Eurydice’s painful solo “That Young,” with its beautiful writing for harp. The writing for woodwinds and brass (especially oboe and trumpet) is particularly fine throughout the piece and in fact all of the orchestration is expert. Also notable was the delicate and effective use of percussion, especially vibraphone and orchestra bells. There is a prerecorded use of the sound of running water at the beginning of the opera, which returns, chillingly, at the end as the cycle resets to begin the story again.

The Artemis Chamber Ensemble (single winds, 2-2-2-0 brass, harp, timpani, one percussionist and small string section), was very well prepared as was the chorus, and Harold Rosenbaum conducted the opera with flair and obvious affection. This was a fine introduction to a remarkable work that left one anxious to hear and see the whole opera staged.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about William Thomas McKinley’s Sir Orpheus, which occupied the first half of the program. Unfortunately, it was drab to a fault and made poor use of a distinguished soloist, clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. One couldn’t help wondering if Mr. McKinley was inspired to use the clarinet as the voice of Orpheus by Ricky Ian Gordon’s song cycle, Orpheus and Euridice for soprano, clarinet and piano published several years ago. Mr. Gordon’s work uses the instrument in a highly lyrical manner, which Mr. McKinley’s does not. Written recently for The New York Virtuoso Singers (but not commissioned by them), Sir Orpheus received its world premiere on this occasion. It is based on an anonymous 14th Century version of the story and preserves the archaic style of medieval romances in the text created by the composer’s wife Marlene Marie McKinley. The problem with the work is twofold. First, the clarinet is mostly confined to virtuosic gestures: scales, arpeggios, trills and the like and is given very little of the soulful lyricism that would lend credence to Orpheus’ ability to mesmerize his listeners with “…blissful music, melodies so sweet…,” to quote the libretto (especially in this instance the Fairy King, who has abducted Sir Orpheus’ wife called Herodis here). And second, the 8 voices of the choral ensemble simply narrate the story, with little in the way of memorable music A solo soprano, from the ensemble, took the role of Herodis, and a solo tenor handled the role of the Fairy King. Mr. Stoltzman had one spoken line, which he handled with the same panache that distinguished his playing of the busy, scampering clarinet part.

The excerpts from Marie Nelson Bennett’s opera were clearly the highlight of this concert and the audience was lucky to have had the chance to encounter her work even in concert form. It is to be hoped that an enterprising opera company somewhere will give Orpheus Lex the full staging it so richly deserves.

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