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Ethan Frome
World Premiere:
A Lyric Opera In Three Acts

Composed by Douglas Allanbrook,
Condusctor John Allanbrook,
 and Performed by Cambridge Chamber Orchestra

Review by Karl Lozier
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Ethan Frome World Premiere: A Lyric Opera In Three Acts

CD Number: Mapleshade 07182


  This composition was written approximately fifty years ago while the composer was residing in Naples, Italy. It is based on Edith Wharton's novel of the same name, though unlike the novel there are no flashbacks. The libretto is by John Hunt. It is referred to as a lyric opera in three acts, though it certainly can be called a contemporary opera or even possibly a grand opera. A copy of the libretto can be downloaded from Mapleshade Records. This, after fifty years, is the world's premiere recording.

This composition has no overture, whatever that might imply to you. There is an extremely brief orchestral prelude. I heard no hints of Verdi's La Traviata in this score, but did imagine hearing orchestral hints of Bartok, Copeland and Stravinsky's Firebird. This tragic tale is of the "familiar eternal love triangle" with just a bit of a twist. Somehow the brief liner notes mention a red glass pickle dish three times and its shattering as the revelation of the husband's love interest in cousin Mattie, who had arrived to help care for the ailing wife. The doomed lovers batch their mutual suicide. So, unlike many famous operas, nobody is killed nor winds up committing suicide. Some pundits might say that Ethan Frome is a "really bad (sic) tragedy" even worse than death. Sung in English as with the entire opera, the epilogue reveals that fifteen years later the previously ailing wife is now taking care of the crippled (by the suicide attempt) lovers. A fate possibly worse than death?

Overall the sound quality is quite excellent. The perspective is quite natural with a great deal of soundscape depth. The recording is not of the spectacular hi-fi genre but one of musically satisfying reproduction. For the most part the orchestral execution (about forty-five pieces) is very satisfactory as is the conducting. Mapleshade can feel deservedly proud of the technical aspects and quality of this recording. Any general recommendation must necessarily be limited; it will not be of wide-ranging appeal. Repeated listening has changed little, though the orchestration holds up very well.


Additional Information...

Russ Bralley is the executive director of the Lake Worth Playhouse. I had just recently found out that he has a great deal of interest in and affinity for lyric operas. He graciously agreed to comment on this recording. He has done that so very compactly that I kept my preceding remarks very brief. If you care to comment to him directly, you can do so by writing to him at: 2560 South Ocean Blvd. 411, Palm Beach FL 33480. His comments follow, completely and unedited.

It is difficult to know what the composer had in mind in writing this opera. The liner notes make reference to the composer's experience in Italy where he resided during the time he was writing this opera. He wistfully relates how the seven performances of Renata Tebaldi as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata influenced his work, particularly in developing the character of his Mattie Silver. I know he was sincere, but find it astonishing that he could mention Verdi and Ethan Frome in the same breath. Indeed, some of the orchestrations, and particularly the broad chord progressions, are vaguely reminiscent of American legend Aaron Copeland, and darker, complex, and certainly more brooding - but certainly nothing like Verdi. Occasionally one catches a glimpse of Arvo Part, but the spectre is fleeting. Certainly, anyone familiar with the Wharton novel must be both delighted and apprehensive at the thought of this tale becoming an opera.

At times extremely haunting, the opening words of the piece sung by baritone. S. Mark Aliapoulis as Ethan Frome, set the dismal mood for the whole opera: "the land is cold and dead; there's too much winter here...." As Zeena, mezzo-soprano Anita Costanzo seems at times uncertain of the notes and musical style in this recording; but Aliapoulis' rich baritone voice is clear and beautiful throughout. Despite some sloppy trumpets and off-key playing by the strings, the recording does have a certain consistent dreamlike quality throughout. And the piece is very consistent with the novel, both in tone and texture. From a purely personal perspective, however, I wonder if the opera's appeal is broad enough for everyone's liking - especially classicists. And it will be interesting to see how popular it ultimately becomes or which companies choose to produce it in the future.

Although the piece starts off very darkly, by the fifth track it becomes somewhat more rich and layered with the entrance of lyric soprano Leanne Gonzalez as the youthful, enthusiastic Mattie Silver. Craig Hanson as Dennis possesses a delightful lilting tenor voice. I think the style and the subject matter don't allow for the full range of the performers and the end result leaves the listener with a hollow feeling similar to one might feel at witnessing a tragedy firsthand. Since Ethan Frome is a tragedy the audience or listener takes on the role on passive witness. In that regard the composer is immensely successful. In this tragedy the vocal ranges and orchestrations are so narrow that the piece is disconcertingly, overwhelmingly melancholy.

The entire piece makes one's heart ache with a mixture of pity, sorrow, anger and unfulfilled resignation to an unjust fate. I believe some opera connoisseurs may have the feeling it is derivative, since the writing style seems familiar to that of other contemporary composers. The Epilogue pretty well sums the entire opera up when a crippled Mattie and old Zeena sing "endlessly and querulously a kind of hellish litany." If you can make it through the entire recording you will certainly have food for thought for many weeks to come. The recording is certainly evocative.











































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