The Trees on the Mountain are Accented?

Do we need to add accents to music? We ask because some years back we were introduced to the strange and weird world of Albert Herring. We didn’t think much about the accent question at the time; we were in Scotland and all the singers sounded British, inasmuch as singing is ever accented.

But then we were introduced to what must be one of our favourite pieces of music in all opera, The Trees on the Mountain. It comes from Carlyle Floyd’s Susannah, and while it’s based on the apocryphal book of the same name, Floyd relocates the action to the heart of Southern America. It’s not nearly well-known enough elsewhere, though it put Floyd on the musical map. This means there are precious few recordings of it that we can find – and the ones we can are full of the South. Not surprising, if, as with our Albert Herring the cast was Southern, but the singers of Floyd aren’t. Yet, every one of them feels the need to adopt the soft-spoken Southern accent as they negotiate the music, and every time we here the dialectised words, we’re pulled out of the music for a second.

You have to understand; it’s not written that way. Oh, there’s the odd bit of dialectic phrasing, take ‘The sky’s so bright and velvet-like,’ for instance. But relaxed vowels are all interpretive -not written into the text. That’s not to say, of course, that it can’t be done – otherwise cry heresy to every rescoring of Bach and Rameau through history. We’ve been putting our stamp on music forever, adding dynamics were there were none, taking them out where an editor we disagree with wrote them in, ornamenting and decorating and offering suggestions for grace notes. But accents? Even ones not ours?

It’s an odd thing. Undeniably a large part of Susannah’s musical identity is its Southernness. But when we sing Trees on the Mountain, or even its companion, Ain’t it a Pretty Night  – and we have – we find it distinctly unnatural to assume an accent that isn’t our funny hybrid of Canadian-British-Scots-whatever-people-guess-at-the-moment. The fact is when we sing we sound neutral, and turning ‘my’ into ‘ma’ makes harder already challenging intervals. It also makes us sound and feel absurd, since we still sound Canadian-Scots-British-et&. Would it be different if that was our natural speech pattern? Very possibly.

And then there’s the music. We’ve already said this is an opera steeped in the South. Floyd wrote the culture into the music. However you sing the words, there is no getting around the lilting lyricism of this opera with its roots in folk revival. It’s the music of a people turned grand opera. It isn’t easy music, but it is music with the kind of fluid tessitura that allows it to sit comfortably in any voice.

Albert Herring isn’t quite the same. It’s brittle and spiky, even chaotic. It doesn’t sound of England in quite the way Susannah sounds musically southern. Except that it does. It’s not Elgar, but it’s clipped and precise in a cut-glass way that is beautifully evocative of the posh, stratified society the eponymous Herring wants to throw off. As he tries to eschew it the music grows wild and chromatic. So not only does it sound of a place, it sounds of the particular social sphere being depicted. Does it need the cut-glass accents singers often bring to it? Does Trees on the Mountain need its dialectic stresses? For our money this is a case of music first, then words. Place, history, class: it’s all there; one only needs to listen.

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The Turn of the Screw

It was with a certain amount of trepidation we went to hear Britten’s The Turn of the Screw yesterday evening. Not because the Byre Theatre’s opera productions have ever let us down, but because in researching The Turn of the Screw we had discovered it revolved around a 12-tone thematic construction, a thing which we have before now found challenging. We blame this on our first imperfect  introduction to it through  exposure to Wozzeck, an opera to which we still have a deeply visceral and vehement reaction, though we can and do acknowledge the genius behind its creation. Last night’s revelation though was that it’s not the 12-tone system or even atonality we can’t stand; it’s just Wozzeck.

The Turn of the Screw, perhaps more than Berg, whose work predates Schoenberg’s scale, relies on a twelve-tone sequence to separate its scenes. It recurs in a theme-and-variation structure and goes on to forms the basis for the opera. More musically competent people have before now dissected it’s importance to the opera, and the symmetry of the scene division. We suspect that it works for us in Turn of the Screw to better effect not because it’s given a tonal recontextualisation but because it serves the story.

Each reintroduction of the theme makes use of instruments that prove integral to the ensuing scene. More than that though, the theme darkens as the narrative does. The perpetual shifting of the key signature too denies us the luxury of settling into familiar territory; the foundations of this opera are perpetually shifting. It’s the synthesis of form and function at it’s best, and it made for riveting listening. We couldn’t look away, much as we wanted to.

This more than anything is perhaps what set us contrasting it with Wozzeck, a story we feel sure set out to achieve the same end. The deliberate choice for dissonance, for atonality necessarily reflects the kind of story being told and should make for uncomfortable listening. It should also draw us in, and that’s something Berg has never done. It feels too consciously an exercise and we disengage. Perhaps more problematically, the shifts in key and structure in Wozzeck feel sudden. It isn’t that part of the floor has shifted, it’s that the floor has been pulled out from under our feet and left us scrabbling for any kind of hold on the narrative.

The Turn of the Screw in contrast feels much more gradual as it slips into darkness. It mirrors speech rhythms, and we listen more closely. It spawns competing, often dissonant musical lines that demand the listener lean closer to understand. It is when we do that darkness asserts itself and doom feels imminent. The ceremony of innocence, as the characters repeatedly assert, is indeed drowned, but it is too late, because having been drawn in, we must know the ending.

Of course, we don’t think it hurt either that the cast –especially the boy playing Miles –was a commendable one. Music, as we’ve no doubt said before, is very much a living thing and its success is in the hands of the singers. These ones more than served their craft and we’re sorry we were ever doubtful.

A Lyric Fairytale

On Thursday we went down to Edinburgh for Rusalka. In the event we’ve not said, this is we venture, our favourite of all opera ever. For skilfully rendered story and devastatingly good music it’s unmatched.

When Scottish Opera announced Rusalka for this season we determined to go. We’ve not seen it live since the COC took it on 7 (?) years ago, and we wanted to. Nothing conveys the vulnerability, the messiness, the sheer effort of singing like a live performance. But outings like this run the risk of ending with us spending the third act nervously watching the clock and calculating the distance back to Waverly Station to catch the 23:08 back to Leuchars. We love our grey town by the sea, but it’s not exactly easy to reach if you can’t drive.

We’re glad we made the effort though. We never noticed the time, and we did catch the train, but this was more than that. Rusalka is, as it says on its title page, a lyrical fairytale at it’s heart, and this production had taken the idea and run with it. All the women, from Rusalka to the witch Jezibaba were given dresses that tapered and flared like fishtails. The men were all in woodsy greens and browns. It was lovely to look at, lovely to listen to, and best of all this was a production that brought interesting and new interpretations to its characters.

Jezibaba especially stood out in this respect. Every previous iteration of the opera we’ve seen has rendered her cartoonish, warts, rags, stoop and all. It wasn’t only that Scottish Opera gave us an elegant woman who acted as well as she sang. There was a depth we’ve never seen in the part before. Straight-shouldered and graceful, Jezibaba was still terrifying when call upon. There was also great tenderness in her music. This was a woman who looked at the abandoned Rusalka and saw in her something of herself and seeing it, offered her empowerment the best way she understood it. More than that though, we believed it of her, not only because the musical cues, the darkening of Rusalka’s leitmotif, it’s adoption of aspects of Jezibaba’s reinforced it, but because the performance sold the interpretation. Blood vengeance was part of her, certainly, but not the only part. And there was something far more chilling about the woman who could move from cradling Rusalka like a child to wielding a knife with menace than there was in that cartoonish witch we so often think of.

Vodnik the water gnome was memorable too, and we don’t say that lightly. Years of singing and we still find ourselves in alien territory when we hear basses. It’s not that we dislike them, it’s that it’s a different kind of listening. We’re comfortable with high notes, we sing them often, so we listen with understanding to the soprano, and gravitate towards those high lines because we can appreciate them. We can spot when a tempo’s unsympathetically slow and necessitating extra breaths, we know when a high note has landed, and while we know we could never do half so well, we can understand the hurdles to be got over and the nuances in the singing.

We can’t say that about the lower registers of the voice, which is why whenever we hear an especially good singer traverse those places -as happened the other evening – we can only listen with a certain amount of awe. We think of low notes and we think of falling (with a fair amount of control) down a well. It never sounds like that. This sounded like it rose up out of the floor, out of the space beneath the floor, possibly from somewhere dark and rich and warm deep in the earth itself. Think about what red velvet cake might sound like if it could sing. The really impressive thing though, is that a voice like that came out of a man submerged in the scenery. It turns out that if you literally make your water gnome, well, a water-gnome, complete with tail, free movement is sacrificed somewhat. It made it all the more effective when he did break free of the set. Power radiated off of him in waves, and we’ve never seen anything like that. It was awful in that old, archaic sense of the word, full of awe and wonderment.

It wouldn’t be Rusalka though without a mention of the Song to the Moon. We could rave about it forever –it’s our favourite aria if we have to choose –but we won’t. We can’t say anything meaningful that hasn’t been already. Suffice it to say it sounded like liquid gold, that those harps felt like coming home.

We’ll leave you with those harps. They say it best after all. And while this isn’t the performance we heard, it’s still a favourite.