The Fool / The Death of Enkidu
Singers: Tamara Hummel (s), Sandra Graham (m/s), Darryl Edwards (t), Gary Relyea (b/bt) (The Fool)
Amanda Parsons (actor), Julie Nesrallah (m/s), Martin Houtman (t), David Pomeroy (t), Doug Macnaughton (b/bt), Alain Coulombe (b) (Death of Enkidu)
Conductors: David Currie (The Fool), Les Dala (Death of Enkidu)
This is part of Cenrediscs’ ongoing recording project commemorating Canadian composer Harry Somers (1925-1999). Somers came under the influence of the contemporary avante-garde early in his studies in his native Toronto (1942) in the person of John Weinzweig, who encouraged him to study traditional harmony as well as introducing him to 12-tone serial composition (presumably in order to thoroughly learn the rules he was to break). After the war, he studied for a time under Darius Milhaud in Paris, where he was influenced by the music of Boulez and Messiaen. As Somers was to describe this period of his life: “Now in the 1950s I was out of touch with developments that were happening in composition; I had to learn my own way. And my own way was to write works that employed Baroque techniques fused with serialism and the more highly tensioned elements of 20th century music I was familiar with at the time.”
Now, what about the two 40-minute chamber operas in the present 2-CD set? Briefly, The Fool is about a court jester who refuses to have his soaring spirit circumscribed by either convention or royal decree and falls to his death when attempting to fly from the castle battlements on his own homemade wings. (Presumably, this is the plight of the poor, misunderstood creative artist in modern society). The Death of Enkidu takes its inspiration from the ancient Chaldean epic of Gilgamesh. It deals, in flashback, with the downfall of the man-beast Enkidu, who had been happily running with a pack of wolves before the tyrant Gilgamesh sent a harlot to seduce him so that he would become more pliable to his plans for conquest following his loss of innocence. The Fool and Enkidu will be seen as stylized, non-naturalistic dramas that are philosophical, even existentialist, in thrust. They seem to reflect contemporary trends in the theatre in the 1950’s that came to be known as “Theatre of the Absurd” and “Theatre of Cruelty.”
I can’t say that I enjoyed listening to either work. Whether or not you describe Somers’ writing as “scale-like material with a strong tonal pull,” it is not at all euphonious. In fact, it is hard to talk about melody or harmony at all in the context of these works (believe me, it’s nothing you’d want to hum or sing in the shower). They suffer from the common limitation of most modern attempts to write English-language opera in that they tend to rely on heightened speech patterns in place of a true vocal vocabulary. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fact that we have no real bel canto tradition such as other languages have (There are, of course, vibrant folk and popular song traditions in various English-speaking countries, but contemporary composers have generally shown little interest in them). The result is a strained, declamatory style of operatic writing that many listeners (myself included) find most unattractive. In Death of Enkidu, this style reaches an extreme in the tortured, syllabic, hiccoughing delivery of the narrator and the equally mannered vocal writing for the hero, which incorporates wolf calls into a generally aphasic mix. There is a Chorus of three soldiers, who seem oblivious to Enkidu’s dilemma as the noble savage who has “sold out” to Gilgamesh and is thus uncomfortable in either the animal world or the human. Instead, they mostly complain about the harshness of their life in a desolate foreign land and how they long to return to their own country (which corresponds to modern-day Iraq, so you know things must really be bad). This may be alienation indeed, but it isn’t either good theatre or treasurable opera.