Opera on recording is always a little tricky. How much of the visual event affects how we process the music? It is similar with movie soundtracks. Hearing a movie soundtrack without seeing the film leads to an incomplete picture of the whole work. I find that, in the case of these two operas, the missing visual elements leave me rather flat and empty. Simply as disembodied music, these pieces are not entirely successful.
The Cask of Amontillado was adapted from the Poe by the composer and commissioned by Richard Conrad and the Boston Academy of Music. Mr. Conrad also sings the role of Montresor, which illustrates the nice thing about commissions: you get to be the bad ass. I’m sure that wasn’t a stipulation of the commission but it certainly didn’t hurt anything.
Cask is a simple enough story and Mr. Pinkham’s libretto is just fine. My main complaint with the libretto is that it is too literal. I submit that most people will know this story. The psychological aspects of the tale are set aside for a cardboard description of a simple revenge story. I wanted a revenge-flavored version of Erwartung but instead get a storyline that reads a bit too much like SparkNotes. The insertion of a reveller’s scene is heavy handed and seems to come about due to a predefined need for a choral part. It is not dramatically nor musically necessary.
Musically, the piece hangs together well. Single ideas are used to articulate large formal sections just as one would expect. The language is vocal-friendly without a lot of dissonance and a good attention to smooth melodic contours. One peculiarity is that the instruments and the singers are rarely performing at the same time. There are instrumental interludes between scenes that allow the orchestra a chance to flex their muscles but I did not find a satisfactory peak in the drama that brought the singers and instrumentalists together.
Similarly, the vocal writing is a basic alternation between Montresor and Fortunato. There are several missed opportunities. Fortunato’s coughing is just coughing. No instrumental exploration, no rhythmic use of the quirk to give the character any particular…you know…character. And Fortunato is extremely well mannered as he is being chained up and walled in. He let’s Montresor finish his melodies before singing a feeble protest. I would think that if I were in Fortunato’s shoes I would interrupt a time or two and probably wail a bit. The whole opera suffers from a series of missed musical and emotional opportunities.
Garden Party is a comic opera about Adam and Eve, once again with the composer as the librettist. This opera is an earlier work, dating from the late 70s, and is musically a bit more satisfying. The general affect of the singers is better than in Cask simply because of the funny dialog. The score is much spryer and rhythmic, even though most of the opera really isn’t THAT funny. There are some chuckle moments and a nice celebration of sin at the end. The story line is a much more creative adaptation than in Cask and I think this work would be fun to watch. The timing and inflection of the vocalists on the recording is rather flat but, in a live concert, I bet it would work nicely (give the proper cast).
The whole opera could be called Candide Lite for the basic character/musical similarities: simple people getting duped by others and then reflecting, often with some rhythmic spunkiness. The Snake’s voice is not sung (of course) but rather sounds like an unfortunate Trumate Capote impersonation. God’s final scolding is completely straight, which is a shame. It could have been funny. Nay, it SHOULD have been funny.
The pairing of dark/light one-act operas is a great way to spend an evening. The pairing of Menotti’s The Telephone with The Medium is an excellent model. Mr. Pinkham’s pieces seem to reflect this model except the dark story isn’t very disturbing and the light story isn’t all that funny. At the end of it all, I have to drop the F-bomb: fine.
These pieces are fine. They could have been so much more.