reviewed by Alex Morin
DOUGLAS ALLANBROOK: Ethan Frome--Leanne Gonzalez, sop/Anita Costanza, mezzo/S. Mark Aliapoulis, bar/John Allanbrook, cond/Cambridge Chamber Orchestra--Mapleshade 07182 (2 CDs):
This is another attempt at an "American" opera, and it's more successful than most. Douglas Allanbrook (b 1921), like so many others, studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and since 1952 has taught at St. John's College in Annapolis. The libretto by John Hunt retells Edith Wharton's grim tale of jealousy and attempted suicide, but Allanbrook's music isn't as bleak as you might expect. It's contemporary in style, proceeding mostly in declamatory accompanied recitative, but with a good deal of attractive, long-lined melodic material...the imaginative orchestration has a propulsive energy that keeps it moving along. The singers are adequate, all three principals providing effective characterizations. Aliapoulis has a sometimes troubling vibrato and is stronger at the top than the bottom, but he's bold and clear; Costanza offers an appropriately querulous Zeena, and Gonzalez's light soprano emphasizes the girlish charm of Mattie. Allanbrook's son John presumably conducts with understanding, and the orchestra plays well. Summary but no libretto; very good sound. I was sufficiently interested to listen to the opera several times, each time becoming more impressed with its dramatic force.
reviewed by Rueben Parry
This World Premiere disc of Douglas Allanbrook’s Lyric Opera composed in the early 1950s was recorded live to two track over three January days in 1999 at the Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. It is based upon the Edith Wharton drama about Ethan Frome (S. Mark Aliapoulis, baritone) and his wife who are joined at their isolated farmhouse by their young cousin Mattie Silver (Leanne Gonzalez, lyric soprano) who is to nurse an ailing Zeena played by mezzo soprano Anita Costanzo. A classic triangle develops and the jealousy and sexual tension is palpable in the love duets. When Mattie is forced to leave because Zeena needs proper care a sense of misery and imminent catastrophe descends. The breaking up of the lovers is pre-echoed in the second scene of Act Two when Ethan as he reaches to embrace Mattie knocks a red pickle dish to the floor where it shatters. The opera closes with a return to the Frome farmhouse some fifteen years later. The roles are reversed.
Zeena is now physical fit and it’s Mattie who sits crippled in a wheelchair. A lame Ethan returns from town, places a piece of wood on the fire that has nearly gone out and as in the opening of the opera gazes out of the window and sings of what might have been.
Filled with motifs and striking symbolism throughout all three of its acts, this opera takes upon itself the virtues of the Nineteenth Century European tradition and places them firmly within a mid-Twentieth Century New England context.
Yes, it is thematically threadbare, but name an opera from any era that isn’t. The plain storytelling drives our attention towards the quality in the singing and in the instrumental score. All the set pieces are there to hear with the arias, duets and trios moving the action ever onwards, during which the composer’s music closely mirrors the emotional turmoil felt by the vocal soloists. So much so that shortly after Mattie’s arrival the instrumentation consciously soars with Ethan’s hopes for a better life and a landscape free of winter’s harsh grip. Elsewhere the Cambridge Chamber Orchestra musicians under John Allanbrook’s direction offer suitably subdued textures beneath the singing when it contemplates moments of resignation and despair.
Mapleshade’s engineer Pierre Sprey gives us a clean sounding and nicely balanced CD that establishes fine instrumental and vocal separation. There’s vocal clarity at its core with firm and rich orchestral tones filling in behind, between and around the singers.