For this premiere performance of his opera Jane Eyre, the 89-year-old composer was present and the event was recorded by Somm.
Jane Eyre is a rather dense novel and an operatic version can surely give us only an essence of the complexity. John Joubert stages the work in two Acts, each of three scenes, and in many respects the model is Wagnerian as the protagonists are generally expressing their feelings and emotions in solos and duets – very much Tristan und Isolde.
The most conventionally operatic is the interrupted wedding ceremony of Rochester and Jane when the existence of the incarcerated first wife Bertha Mason is revealed. In the opera we have ‘seen’ her only as she sets fire to the bedclothes and curtains in Rochester’s room as he sleeps – some expressive orchestral writing accompanies this passage interspersing Rochester’s harmonious dreamy slumber with clarinet plaintively chanting over an undulating string passage contrasted with an agitated depiction of the flames taking hold before Jane’s timely intervention.
The wedding itself introduces a myriad of small characters, none that strongly delineated in vocal terms and none of whom reappear; this opera relies on the audience having some knowledge of the narrative. That being said the work makes a powerful impact. The scoring is for a small orchestra, all string sections represented, single woodwind and brass (including a tuba) and percussion with piano and organ. Despite the limited forces the orchestral tumult could be very forceful; indeed in the warm acoustic of this relatively small auditorium the balance tended to favour the instruments.
Joubert’s music is harmonically attractive and his orchestration subtle. There is also wit, with echoes of the operatic music of Janáček, Britten, Stravinsky and Wagner (to name but a few) evident fleetingly, and intentionally so in their contexts. It would certainly bear repeated listening – and indeed some of the scenes for the two protagonists could be excerpted.
The parts of Jane and Rochester are imaginatively written. Jane’s lines start out being rather declamatory where she announces her departure from Mr Brocklehurst’s school. As she grows in self-confidence and her romantic nature is revealed her lines become far more impassioned. April Fredrick captured the development of the character well, and made all the words tell. Her voice is warm and attractive across a wide range and the resolve of the character shone through. David Stout’s brooding Rochester was also impressive, and his incisive and mellifluous voice was shown at its appreciable best. He and Fredrick blended well, particularly in the final reflective encounter with its open ending. The other singers all performed their limited roles well – Mark Milhofer standing out as Richard Mason and the Reverend Rivers in two nicely delineated cameos. Kenneth Woods conducted with aplomb, and the recording is much looked forward to.