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Posted October 1, 2010
A MAJOR 20th CENTURY AMERICAN OPERA - THE GAP FINALLY FILLED
Review by Jerry Fink
Deems Taylor was a major American music critic and composer best remembered for two operas, The King's Henchman and Peter Ibbetson ; and, his "live" appearance in the Disney feature film Fantasia . Peter Ibbetson has been considered one of the signature operas of the American "traditionalist" school of the 1920's and 30's. The work was commissioned by Gatti-Casazza for the Metropolitan Opera and premiered February 1931. It was a box-office success and ran between 1931 and 1936 giving the Met a needed financial "shot in the arm" in the bowels of the Depression.
The plot of the opera was taken from George Du Maurier's novel of the same name. The timeline of the story is roughly a thirty year period between 1855 and 1887. The action takes place in both England and France with most of the French scenes sung in French and the English scenes sung in English. Peter and Mary are the adult counterparts of two children ( Gogo and Mimsey ) who grew up as children in France as very good and trusted friends . As the plot continues, their adult relationship with each other becomes more defined and, of course, more complicated. Since Mary is married, Peter will not be able to fulfill his desire for a complete relationship with the woman he loves. His relationship with his Uncle has been and continues to be unbearable. When Peter finds out that his Uncle has told others that he is really Peter's father, Peter's anger culminates in killing his Uncle. Peter ends up in prison, with his death sentence commuted to life in prison. Peter's only solace in life is reflected in two large dream scenes (one each in acts two and three). His love for Mary can only be totally fulfilled when he dreams "true". Thirty years pass. Peter is informed by his old and dear friend Mrs. Deane that Mary has passed away. As Peter lies dying, Mary appears as a spirit beckoning Peter to come with her. He dies and the opera ends with a chorus greeting a new and more beautiful day.
The sound of Taylor's music is quite beautiful throughout. The orchestra is the main protagonist and plays continuously. The vocal writing is mainly declamatory with a few important arias and ensembles sprinkled appropriately throughout the work. Wagner, Massenet, Debussy, R. Strauss, Delius, and even Henry Hadley can be heard here, but in the end this is the work of an American independent musical voice. To me, the best music is found in the two dream sequences.
The singers are all up to the task and I couldn't hear any glaring mistakes throughout the performance(s) of April 29th and May 1st, 1999. Anthony Dean Griffey as Peter and Lori Summers as Mrs. Deane stand out for me as giving the best performances. Gerard Schwarz obviously loves this music and prepared these performances extremely well. His knowledge of the musical idiom is flawless and the orchestra and chorus are superb.
The sound is excellent for a live pick up and audience noise is minimal.
The liner notes and synopsis are splendidly written by James Pegolotti. The artist bios are comprehensive.
The complete libretto is available from the Naxos website with the French translations in red.