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Summer Opera 2006: "Jane Eyre"

Michael Berkeley, Jane Eyre, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, 2006, photo by Ken HowardOpera Theater of St. Louis also had a U.S. premiere on its schedule this summer. Last month, they presented Michael Berkeley's recent opera adapting the novel by Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (2000), directed by OTSL Artistic Director Colin Graham. Sarah Bryan Miller reviewed it (Opera Theatre of St. Louis: Jane Eyre, June 6) for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The story is compressed beyond mere telescoping. The score is musically and dramatically intense. But if you don't go to opera primarily for pretty tunes and costumes, Michael Berkeley's "Jane Eyre" might just prove to be your cup of tea. Seen at its U.S. premiere Sunday night at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, "Jane Eyre" doesn't pull any punches. At 80 minutes, it may be too tightly written for the drama it explores. David Malouf's libretto, from Charlotte Bronte's classic novel, jettisons all of Jane's early story and most details of her time at Thornfield. If it's been a few years since you read the book (or saw a movie treatment), be sure to read the synopsis before the lights go down. Berkeley's score, however, effectively conveys Thornfield's menace, its hidden mistress' madness, Mr. Rochester's anguish and Jane's evolving emotions. It opens effectively with the low wind instruments and builds spikily to the climax.
There was another review by Lew Prince (Toot Sweet, June 7) in the Riverfront Times:
As Malouf pared down the story line, Berkeley hacked his orchestration to the bone. Here, though, the original setting, for a "chamber"-size group of a dozen or so musicians, has been expanded; Berkeley rewrote the string parts for a section double the size of the original. I asked the composer if this was intended to sweeten the sound for Middle America. Berkeley looked aghast. "Quite the contrary," he says, explaining that "it allowed the addition of more swirling textures" to the less harmonic string parts. It also allows for more richly passionate swells as the lovers pledge their love, then renew their ardor in a later scene. Conductor Andreas Mitisek, making his OTSL debut, leads a fully engaged crew in a compelling reading of this simple-sounding but harmonically and rhythmically intense score. [...]

Other Reviews:

Scott Cantrell, A pared 'Eyre' (Dallas Morning News, June 26)
There's little vocal interaction between the characters outside of a couple of brief love duets. Cast members get to harmonize for a few bars here and there but do not sing the duets and larger ensembles that enrich most operas. [...] Eerie offstage voices and choirs add to the mix, coming off more like musical instruments than like voices, adding depth to the sonic texture. Like the score, Erhard Rom's set is deceptively simple. A series of flats insinuates the basic features of the Rochester mansion. To alter the setting and mood, Rom projects images and colors over these plane surfaces. In combination with Mark McCullough's lighting, the projected images accent changes in the interior lives of the characters. Colin Graham's no-frills direction matches tempo of this streamlined classic. There's not a jigger of waste in this brisk, intermissionless 80 minutes.
See more photos in Ben Mattison's Photo Journal for PlaybillArts. Michael Berkeley happens to be a former chorister at one of my favorite places, Westminster Cathedral, and is also the son of British composer Lennox Berkeley and the godson of Benjamin Britten. I believe that is called pedigree.


Garth Trinkl said...

Ian McEwan and Michael Berkeley are the creators of the 1983 anti-nuclear war and weapons oratorio "Or Shall We Die?" It was premiered by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, broadcast, and distributed on LP, cassette, and, later, CD. [In 1983, Ronald Reagan declared that a nuclear conflict in Europe was not only thinkable, but winnable.]

I believe that is called not pedigree but accomplishment.

From Ian McEwan's libretto (based upon Japanese mother Mrs Tomoyasu :

All night I searched for my daughter.
At dawn a neighbour told me
she had seen her by the river,
among the dead and dying.
I heard her voice calling Mother, Mother,
and I went towards the sound.
My child was completely burned.
The skin had come off her head,
leaving a knot of twisted hair.

My daughter said, Mother, you're late, so late,
please take me back. It hurts, it hurts.
Please take me home. But there were no homes,
no doctors, there was nothing I could do.

I covered up her naked body and held her
in my arms for seven hours.
Late at night she cried out again, Mother,
Mother, and put her arm around my neck,
her small cold arm.

I said, Please say Mother again.
But that was the last time.

Charles T. Downey said...

Garth, thanks for the comment. For the record, I did not mean to imply with my pedigree comment that Michael Berkeley has no merit as a composer in his own right, which he clearly does.