Since the late 1950's, when I fell in love with Howard Hanson's LP of Deems Taylor's "Through the Looking-Glass," this composer has been a private crusade of mine. Nowadays Taylor is remembered as the narrator of Disney's "Fantasia," if he is remembered at all. A pity, because he wrote a good deal of appealing music in a Debussy/Wagner neo-impressionist idiom, which, if one likes it, is called "traditional", and if one has an axe to grind (as did the serialists), "behind the times." I'm of the former camp. Later, I found the "Unique Opera Recordings" LP's of "Peter Ibbetson" with the cast of the 1931 Met premiere. Again, despite terrible sound, it was love at first "sight". (NAXOS HISTORICAL has given us many valuable CD transfers of Met broadcasts--why not "Peter Ibbetson"?) Still later, I acquired a tape of the Chicago(?) Romantic Music Festival revival. The sound was an improvement, but the performance was of the "revised version" (published by Fischer), which involved some trimming of the "dream" sequences and the Peter/Mary duets. (The present recording seems to use this edition.) Since then, the Met broadcast has been briefly available as an "Immortal Performances" CD.(This is NOT to be confused with the Canadian "Immortal Performances" group which does superb historical restorations.)
The MET audiences of the 30's loved the piece. According to James Pegolotti's informative notes, "The opera received 22 performances over four seasons from 1931 to 1936, a record that held until 'Porgy and Bess' entered the Metropolitan repertory in 1985"--(He means for an American opera). Until now, I had despaired of there ever being a commercial recording in decent sound. Now, thanks to NAXOS, it is here at last, and, although the response the performance itself elicits from me is akin to W.S. Gilbert's "modified rapture," it's a welcome release.
The libretto is based upon George duMaurier's novel. Peter, no longer able to contain his rage at the taunting of his guardian, Colonel Ibbetson (a pathological liar), that Peter is the "love child" of the Colonel and Peter's mother, unintentionally kills him. Although Peter is condemned to life imprisonment, he and his childhood sweetheart, "Mimsey," meet in their dreams, through their childhood game of "dreaming true." Taylor sets this extravagantly romantic story to an extravagantly neo-romantic (and very tonal) score, awash in Debussy and Wagner, with more than one nod toward the lush film music of its era. Other parts sound like the more dissonant passages of late Strauss. The opera is an orchestral tone-poem with the voices superimposed, in the manner of Debussy, Wagner, Strauss or Zandonai. If you caught Alagna's DVD of Alfano's "Cyrano" the procedure is similar, i.e., there are very few separate "set" pieces that can be excerpted. An exception is the Colonel's sweepingly melodious Act I aria, "Si vous croyez," which will probably now undergo a metamorphsis into a baritone warhorse similar to that undergone by Harlequin's "Dance Song" from Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt." For at least 35 years, I've been recommending both arias to baritones looking for fresh audition repertoire, only to be stared at as if I'd crawled out from under a rock. Now that there's an easily available commercial recording, the process will begin, and EVERY baritone will be singing the piece, thinking it's something new-ARRRRGH! (A completely unrelated aside--I find it a little odd that whenever Mimsey is mentioned, everyone's immediate first recollection of her is always, "poor little Mimsey--'toujours mal a la tete'"--WHAT was her problem?)
Any present-day cast would have a hard time competing with the legendary performers of the premiere--Lucrezia Bori, Edward Johnson, Lawrence Tibbett, Gladys Swarthout--WOW! With one unfortunate exception, the Seattle Opera has cast most of the lead roles (and even the secondaries) with, at the very least, capable singers, and in many cases, better than that. In the lead role of Peter, Anthony Dean Griffey is the best of them, using his ringing lyric tenor to believable dramatic effect as the sensitive young dreamer. Pardon the mixed metaphor, but as the Colonel, baritone Richard Zeller has his hands full trying to fill Lawrence Tibbett's shoes. His singing is sweet-toned and consistent--if not distinctly memorable in timbre--but I would have wished for a darker and more mature-sounding voice for the elderly villain of the piece. In the relatively minor role of Mrs. Deane, Lori Summers' mezzo is pleasantly rich, and she is believable as the sympathetic shoulder Peter cries on.
The weak link, unfortunately, is Lauren Flanigan in the other lead role of Mary (the Duchess of Towers, aka "Mimsey"). Her voice is pretty enough, but her mannerism of crooning into the tops of phrases often makes them almost a half-tone flat. This occurs frequently enough to be annoying. The listener must resort to a great deal of second-guessing in order to reconstruct in the mind's ear the pitches she should actually be singing.
As I expected from his CD of "Through the Looking-Glass," conductor Gerard Schwarz has a tendency to allow point-to-point momentum to sag. This has nothing to do with an objection to "expressive lingering" on my part (it is de rigeur in this sort of music), or whether or not I find his tempi too slow. He's inconsistent about pointing phrases to and from their destinations--merely traveling does not describe a point of arrival. Sometimes his rubato is flexible and expressive--at other times he is maddeningly literal (as in the opening of Act I). Let it be said, however, that the Seattle Symphony is a superb orchestra--NAXOS affords them lush yet transparent (if somewhat back-balanced) recording. The result is a revelation after struggling for years to hear the Met broadcast through a veil of noise. Hearing the details clearly at last!--that alone is worth the price of these budget-priced discs.
Chorus master Abraham Kaplan's painstaking work shows off to advantage in the "dream sequences." These are among the loveliest portions of the score. Some portions recall the sort of music that accompanied "flashback" sequences in the motion pictures of the period. Others are based on the French folk-tunes Gogo (Peter) heard during his childhood in France. At last, we can hear these interludes without being forced to listen through the descriptive voice-overs of the Met broadcast!
For the portions of the story set in France, the libretto goes narcissistically bilingual. NAXOS very generously supplies a complete English/French libretto on its website.
This opera is like a classic romantic costume drama movie from the 1930's or 40's. It's an immensely lovable work, despite (or perhaps because of) its clinging to European culture for support, typical of American "high art" products of its age. Notwithstanding disappointments about some aspects of the performance (hence the four stars), it IS a dream come true to hear the details of this lovely score unimpeded by the noise and poor recording of the Met broadcast. No cry-happy sentimentalist should miss this! Doubtless, it will be a long time before we get a better (or even another) recording of "Peter Ibbetson"--if we EVER do.