Siren Song (CD review)
Not since Benjamin Britten has a composer succeeded in writing operas which communicate with such clarity and coherence to their audience as Jonathan Dove. The secret to his success lies partly in his experiences of writing “community” operas, resulting in refreshingly open and accessible works. But there’s also plenty of grit and grime beneath the polished veneer of his streamlined style, especially when the plot is equally compelling and disturbing as it is in Siren Song. […] Dove’sdramatic skill lies in his ability to create a seamless continuity by weaving cell-like musical figures from one scene to the next. His subtle manipulation of an undulating pattern first heard in the opening seascape scene is adapted to accompany a whole host of other states and situations, from Davey and Diana’s sharing of future hopes in their letters (scene 4), to the dream-induced sexual evocations of scene 5.’
(Pwyll ap Siôn, Gramophone, August 2008)
Jonathan Dove’s one act opera Siren Song is based upon a book by
Gordon Honeycombe detailing a true story. From it Dove and his
librettist Nick Dear have created a hypnotic and fast-moving fantasia.
The opera was commissioned by Almeida Opera and first performed in
1994. In many ways it is an atypical Almeida commission as Dove’s
style is not that cutting-edge; instead he produces well crafted works
which mix wit with a fine eye (and ear) for operatic construction and
an aural palate that owes something to John Adams... Dove’s score is
written for a relatively small ensemble, just ten
players, but he manages within these confines to create some
wonderfully hypnotic and transparent textures. He uses percussive
recreations of natural noises, morse code tapping and the like, to
create rhythmical and musical structures...I enjoyed this recording
and will return to it. Dove’s melodic and
well-crafted operas are always a joy to encounter and I hope that this
one wins him yet more admirers.
Robert Hugill, Music web international, August 2008
Jonathan Dove is now a prolific composer of dramatic works of all sorts. Without hesitation he could be thought of as the UK’s leading composer of opera. Siren Song was one of his earlier works and it seems one of his most striking and successful. This is its debut recording. It is also the second Dove opera which Chandos have recorded, ‘Flight’ (1998) having come out in 2005 (CHAN 10197(2)) – see S&H review. I have not heard ‘Flight’ so I did have the possible advantage of coming to this new disc with, as it were, virgin ears. I will pass on my thoughts. But first the plot. The libretto by Nick Dear is based on a book by ex-ITV broadcaster Gordon Honeycombe and divides the plot into seven scenes. It is important to understand that it is set, we are clearly told, in 1988 before mobile phones and the internet were so common. The story concerns a true ‘scam’ of a relationship between a naval seaman Davey Palmer and Diana Reed a model who does not actually exist despite the fact that they exchange letters. He sees her in his imagination, skimpily and fashionably dressed and we see and hear her too - sadly the booklet which has several photos only has one of Diana with her back to us! A strong relationship is formed yet it is only out of a newspaper ad put in by a con-man who sets himself up as Diana’s brother and extorts gifts and money from Davey. I won’t go on and spoil it for you. There are some amusing moments and some disturbing ones, some bad language and some moments when you sympathize with Davey when you know him to be a fool. Davey is sung by the marvellous Australian tenor Brad Cooper - not the Hollywood actor by the way - who brings the character completely to life most believably. He has a superb voice with a fine upper register. He has only a little more to do than the Dutch baritone Mattijs van de Woerd who plays Jonathan Reed. He too has superb diction and characterisation. Any composer with singers like these can consider himself lucky indeed. Not only that but the supporting performers are very well cast especially the glorious and at times, sexy soprano of Amaryllis Dieltiens who until now has been more noted for her early music recordings. I suspect that the purity and clarity of her voice even when competing with a large(ish) ensemble made her an ideal choice for this extraordinary part. Henk Guittart keeps everything under superb control, tempi and balance, especially so in the complex quintet for all of the main characters in scene sixteen.
I am caught between my heart and my brain even more than usual with this piece. Quite simply I was utterly carried away at times by the story-line and music. The melodies soar and are memorable being also obviously grateful to sing; the harmonies yearned with a rare passion and the orchestration for a fairly small ensemble was neat and beautifully thought out and coloured. So there you are, in nutshell all the positives. Now the negatives. Dove enables a sense of forward movement to be created by a consistent and persistent series of ostinati over which voices fall and rise in a basically tonal idiom. Using this approach anything is possible but there is a lack of textural techniques and still moments. These ostinati, typical of John Adams and Philip Glass with their repetitions, create a very slow-moving harmonic backdrop creating the effect one of constantly running on the spot; composing like this is quick and simpler than usual. And no harm in that I hear you and the composer cry. You might however tire of the instrumental background and often feel sorry for the players. In Scene 2 for instance it’s over two minutes before the tonality shifts and then up only a semitone for a short time before another slightly newer ostinato takes over. I must add that some of the libretti is best lost and forgotten “We’ll go to Comet/To Comet/It’s the centre of the home appliance universe /I could live in Comet” and so on.
Yet and yet I have much enjoyed this opera and would love to see
it. I shall listen to it again. It is often exciting, stirring and
very beautiful. It’s curious that an Almeida commission should find
itself made available on CD from a Dutch company at a live Dutch
performance. Jonathan Dove’s position in the UK despite his output is
still side-lined, unregarded and unrewarded. Being a live recording
there are occasional blemishes and audiences noises. Instrumental
parts disappearing into the ether from time to time but the
performance has a magic about it which is indescribable.
The full text is clearly printed along with an essay by Julian Grant -
who, like Dove, has also worked on community opera projects. There is
a plot synopsis and various cast photos and biographies all in a thick
78 page booklet.
Gary Higginson, Music web international, September 2008
‘The idea of a trombone concerto in which the soloist is cast as a ‘stargazer’ searching the night sky, and in which the main musical material is derived from Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star sounds a trite conceit. But Jonathan Dove's Stargazer, which premièred on Friday, makes of this unpromising combination a serious and wholly engaging 20-minute tour through the heavens. Its subject matter has inspired inevitable echoes of Holst's Planets – ‘Jupiter’ in the jollity of the ‘Constellations’ movement, ‘Neptune’ in the translucent opening and the closing ‘Milky Way’ section. But the whole is ingeniously held together by the rising fifth and falling scale of Twinkle, Twinkle - basic musical building blocks that furnish Dove's approachable and diatonic language. His writing for the trombone, an instrument that is too often typecast as ‘Big Bad Wolf’ or ‘Clown’, is commendably lyrical: indeed his whole conception is deliberately "operatic”. He was commissioned to write the concerto back in 1999 for the then principal trombonist of the LSO, Ian Bousfield. Almost immediately, Bousfield left to take up the same role with the Vienna Philharmonic and only now has been able to schedule the world première with his old colleagues. It was a triumphant homecoming, with playing of enormous subtlety that reminded us why he is one of the world's most sought-after trombonists.’
Matthew Rye, The Telegraph, 11 March 07
‘There are too many concertos for flashy fiddlers and pianists, and too few for those talented, modest souls who play the trombone. I should perhaps declare that I was one myself, though in my most ludicrous fantasies I could never have aspired to the insouciant brilliance displayed by Ian Bousfield, the Vienna Philharmonic’s Yorkshire-born principal trombone, for the premiere of Jonathan Dove’s trombone concerto Stargazer. It’s a hugely enjoyable if lightweight piece, almost like film music in its vivid orchestration, old-fashioned tunefulness and unpretentious storytelling. Dove pictures the trombonist, peering along the bell of his instrument, as an astronomer searching the night sky through his telescope (an image Bousfield reinforced by pointing his instrument at the slightly less galactic recesses of the Barbican ceiling). As the astronomer finds various constellations, so Dove’s music evokes their mythological associations. He also uses the tune ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ as the thematic basis for the whole 25-minute piece, though you would be forgiven if you didn’t spot that. Dove’s craftsmanship is, however, instantly discernible. He loves to bounce ideas from soloist to orchestra, or set up shimmering accompaniments over which the trombone launches pensive soliloquies that sometimes utilise advanced brass-playing tricks such as harmonics or flutter-tonguing. There are numerous reminiscences — Gershwin, Holst, John Williams. But Stargazer treats this often caricatured instrument with dignity and imagination, and that gives it an overriding integrity. The London Symphony Orchestra, Bousfield’s former band, seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the soloist.’
Richard Morrison, The Times, 13 March 2007
‘‘A miniature opera for the trombone’ is Jonathan Dove's description of Stargazer, his beautiful, impudent concerto for the instrument. It was written as long ago as 1999 for the LSO's then principal trombonist Ian Bousfield, though the latter's subsequent move to the Vienna Philharmonic meant delaying the premiere, somewhat curiously, for several years. Dove's works are often gleefully and wittily allusive, and Stargazer is effectively a free-flowing, six-section fantasia on - of all things – ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. The irony, however, is that this most famous of tunes is continually varied beyond recognition, though its contours are occasionally discernible in the thematic flow. Bousfield is imagined as the eponymous stargazer scouring the heavens with his telescope, meanwhile, and a succession of fluently scored genre-pieces represents the various constellations that heave into view. A central aria, full of sighing, descending trombone slides, depicts brotherly love in Gemini. Pegasus preens over a ritzy jazz bass, and the work ends with a kaleidoscopic evocation of the Milky Way. The flashing orchestral sonorities, beautifully examined by the LSO under Michael Tilson Thomas, owe much to early Stravinsky. Bousfield was mightily impressive: Dove's trombone writing is genuinely operatic in that he allows the instrument to sing in ways that redefine its lyrical potential.’
Tim Ashley, The Guardian, 13 March 2007
‘On paper, Jonathan Dove's Stargazer is a paradox: a piece about space, concerning cosmic questions and profound philosophies, written for the most stereotypically galumphing member of the orchestra, the trombone. By turning the instrument into an outsider - an anonymous man with a telescope - Dove both overcomes the discrepancy and transforms the concerto mould into a profound dialogue between mortal soloist and galactic orchestra. And it all works rather well. At the work's opening, Stargazer's search for answers is heeded only by mysterious violins and secretive tuned percussion, while a throbbing timpani motif hurriedly retracts into the texture, hiding itself from speculation. Later, as the soloist calls out, spot-them-if-you-can instrumental voices burst forward with brief antiphonal responses, while the violins splatter into the texture a frenzied line of semi-minimalist statements. What is the nature of their answer? If the trombone's dastardly trills, balanced on a threatening double bass growl, are anything to go by, it is not a pleasing one. Ambiguity abounds, though stylistically we are in familiar territory for the subject matter: ethereal strings, splayed percussion, bursts of blazing trumpets and moody harmonic progressions are in abundance. Gustav Holst and John Williams are just two names that spring to mind. Stargazer is, however, exceptionally well orchestrated and not without its surprises, including one startling invasion of jazz in the second half. Even more surprising is the writing for the trombone, which shakes off its reputation as a drunken uncle and sails through the full gauntlet of emotions with a freedom of expression and not a little charisma.’
Dave Paxton, musicOMH.com, 13 March 2007
Tobias and the Angel
‘This was a truly glorious occasion: the reopening of one of Britain’s most consistently imaginative and daring theatres with a community opera of heart-stopping beauty and depth of feeling. […] Tobias and the Angel, with a beautiful and accessible score by Jonathan Dove, and a potent, witty and moving libretto by the Young Vic’s outstanding artistic director, David Lan, was the company’s first “walkabout” show and now it returns to reopen the building and bring the company home. […] When everyone is singing, the sound is absolutely glorious. Dove’s score combines exuberant ensemble numbers inspired by the Jewish klezmer tradition with more meditative, lyrical passages reflecting the beauties of nature. […] the Young Vic has returned home in triumph.’
Charles Spencer, The Telegraph, 13 October 2006
‘So was this a curious choice to reinaugurate the theatre? Absolutely not. Community opera is a genre that can so easily patronise its participants, but Dove and Fulljames’s treatment of the amateurs — children and adults, drawn from Lambeth — is so assured that they are as much the stars of this superb piece as anyone else. Dove, who memorably turned the ordinary into the extraordinary in his hugely successful comic opera Flight, goes one better in Tobias: he makes the fantastical familiar. [...] Around this simple story of redemption Dove’s score expertly surrounds Lan’s witty and direct libretto: nods to klezmer spice up the freshly minted melodies; shivering discords take us into the story’s darker territory. [...] This is life-enhancing stuff, and by the time of the final climax, when the theatre resounds to the tenderest of Dove’s hymns, it’s clear that the “New” Young Vic has got itself off to a terrific start.’
Neil Fisher, The Times, 13 October 2006
‘[...] a more all-embracing and deeply charming opera you could not wish for [...] This production is alive with the energy of mass endeavour, its professional cast supplemented by a talented and superbly drilled amateur chorus of men, women and children from Lambeth and Southwark. [...] Jonathan Dove’s score is accessible in its theatricality, driving the action with changes of orchestral colour a child should understand - the angel gets celesta and flutes, a whinge gets some fussy plucked strings. Yet it is far from patronising. Dove’s melodic lines subtly trace the varied emotional paths of David Lan’s libretto. Klezmer music is all over the place, with the buzz of an accordion providing background for lamentation, its oom-pah announcing comic moments.’
Kieron Quirke, The Evening Standard, 12 October 2006
‘The music never patronises the participants and Dove's melodies are both winningly immediate and dramatically astute. The score conjures surging rivers, precipitous mountains and even a moving mysticism.
The most ravishing music in the whole score comes at the end of the story, as counter-tenor James Laing's stranger reveals himself to be the angel Raphael and the whole cast sings a hymn-like melody with rapt intensity. Inclusive in the best sense of the word, Tobias and the Angel is a community opera that is also a compelling work of music-theatre.’
Tom Service, The Guardian, 10 September 2004
‘One reason Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight was such a triumph at Glyndebourne is that he understands the marriage of theatre and music. He knows how to rouse passions and raise smiles. Tunes flow in abundance, and for him, creating a mood, capturing a feeling for an instant, are second nature...His new one-act church opera Tobias and the Angel surpasses all his achievements to date...’
Fiona Maddocks, The Observer, 11 July 1999
‘I can’t wait to hear it again...In my opinion, Dove has created a work of exceptional merit and individuality. The scoring for small orchestrais ingenious and ear-catching, the writing for chorus, including children, thrilling. Yes, I could mention it in the same breath as Noye’s Fludde.’
Michael Kennedy, The Sunday Telegraph, 11 July 1999
‘The première of Jonathan Dove’s new opera was one of those occasions that made you glad to be alive. It’s a “community” opera in the very best sense of the word...the sense of communal striving, communal uplift was palpable... In its sheer humanity it is indeed a worthy successor to The Magic Flute.’
Rodney Milnes, The Times, 9 July 1999
When She Died...
‘Jonathan Dove’s music is gorgeous, and the whole thing is beautifully staged, acted and sung. More surprisingly to opera non-buffs, watching it is a thought-provoking and devastatingly moving experience. Something opera certainly can be, but television rarely is.’
Lisa Mullen, Time Out London, August 21-28 2002