Arts and Culture

The Holiday Gift Guide I: The Jake Heggie Edition

At the risk of hogging the home page for a week, Classically Speaking will share three entries of can't-miss suggestions for gifts for the classical music fans in your life.

Today's entry features releases within the past year by a composer whose impact on Madison's musical (and intellectual) life began weeks before Madison Opera closed their season with Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking—an event that also goes near the top of "best of" lists in 2014.

The most compelling entry in today's batch is the San Francisco Opera's release and production of Heggie's 2010 opera, Moby Dick. While DMW rightly wears the label of "masterpiece," Moby Dick arguably surpasses it. The story is admittedly a little easier to ride out than the searing journey of brutal crime and redemption of DMW, and sweeps along in a timeless tale that has its own heart of darkness.

Longtime collaborator Gene Scheer wrote the libretto, and it is not too much of a stretch to say that Scheer has done for Heggie what Boito did for Verdi in crafting the libretto of Otello: The daunting questions of obsession and battles over a man's soul in Melville's tale are distilled to their essence.

Heggie's gift for vocal writing was apparent long before DMW, but what we have now in this opera nearly a decade removed is significant growth in Heggie's skill as an orchestrator. The SFO orchestra, under Patrick Summer, realizes all the colors in this 2012 live performance. A uniformly strong cast is headed by the tortured Ahab of Jay Hunter Morris and the defiantly pleading Starbuck of Morgan Smith.

One brilliant move on Heggie's part was to write a "trousers role" for Pip, Ahab's cabin boy, brilliantly captured physically and vocally by Talise Trevigue. That performance is only one clue as to the superior work done by director Leonard Foglia, who brings out the humanity of the characters against the brilliant set design of Robert Brill and lighting of Donald Holder.

Released on the EuroArts label, the DVD is available through Naxos, and include a nearly one-hour disc of bonus material. Be warned: If you give this is a gift and then watch it with the lucky recipient, you'll immediately wish you'd ordered two.

A pair of Naxos CDs of Heggie's smaller-scale vocal works was released earlier this year, the first of these being "Out of Darkness, An Opera of Survival." Consisting of three related works, any of which could stand alone, they are united by the Holocaust. Commissioned and performed by Music of Remembrance, the first two works concern Sonia Landau. Born in 1914, this Polish Jew changed her name to Krystyna Zywulska and ended up in Auschwitz as a political prisoner. With her true identity hidden from the Nazis, she survived the camp. During her time there she cobbled together lyrics and phrases that she set to well-known folk melodies, which were then shared orally with the prisoners.

The first work is "Another Sunrise" (2012), about a half-hour with a solo soprano accompanied by a chamber group. As part of her post-war therapy, Landau is attempting to record for her therapist some information about what she experienced. Once again, librettist Gene Scheer works some magic in weaving the loose ends of her story, and soprano Caitlin Lynch creates an indelible portrait of a soul in search of its true identity.

The second work is "Farewell, Auschwitz" (2013), Scheer's adaptation of Zywulska's actual lyrics,with eight songs that run the gamut in emotional and musical styles. With the same instruments (clarinet, violin, cello, double bass and piano), but with mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen and baritone Morgan Smith joining Lynch, Heggie flexes his eclectic muscles as it were.

The final work is "For a Look or a Touch" (2013 version), a set of five songs drawn from the journal of Manfred Lewin, a homosexual who died in Auschwitz. Here baritone Smith is accompanied by flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, and in scarcely more than twenty minutes we travel from pre-war passion to camp atrocities to "Silence," a wordless melody that closes the cycle. OK, not the happiest subject matter for holiday gift giving, but another significant entry into Heggie's catalogue.

From their American Classics series, Naxos has issued a new recording of three of Heggie's song cycles from the mid- to late 1990s—among the works that led then-general manager Lofti Mansouri to commission Heggie for a new opera for the millennial season of the San Francisco Opera (which became DMW). The new disc is titled "Connection: Three Song Cycles," and the connection is simple; these are songs about women. The first is the 1997 "Natural Selection," five songs set to the poetry of Gini Savage. It is a pithy journey from the desire to break away from parents, wanting to be wild, always finding Mr. Wrong, the aftermath of a failed marriage and ultimately finding peace in oneself.

Soprano Regina Zona hits the different emotional notes deftly while imbuing the musical ones with warmth, and pianist Kathleen Tagg admirably displays another of Heggie's cherishable gifts: His ability to infuse his piano writing with such a variety of expression. The quality of making the piano far more than an accompaniment is a trait that all the great song writers have shared dating back at least to Schubert, and Heggie at his best can take a seat right in the front of the class.

The second set is "Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia (1999), the first to Heggie's own text, the rest by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The final cycle is the longest, the 1996 "Eve-Song" running nearly a half hour over its eight songs. To poems by Phillip Littell, we again get that great array that runs from inner searching to laugh out loud humor.

Final kudos to Naxos itself for the extensive booklets for both of these CDs, with insightful program notes and full texts—a rarity now for the last decade or so. Next entry for the gift guide: The tear-jerker edition!


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