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Michael BERKELEY (b.1948)
Jane Eyre – An Opera in Two Acts (2000)
Libretto by David Malouf
Dramatis personae:

Jane Eyre - Natasha Marsh (soprano)
Adele - Fflur Wyn (soprano)
Mrs. Fairfax - Beverly Mills (mezzo-soprano)
Mrs. Rochester - Emily Bauer-Jones (contralto)
Rochester - Andrew Slater (bass)
The Music Theatre Wales Ensemble/Michael Rafferty
Recorded live at the Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 4 November 2000


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This opera made headline news before it was even finished. The virtually complete manuscript was stolen from the composer’s car, necessitating a reconstruction and re-think. From this crisis, it appears Berkeley and David Malouf (his librettist) ended up with an adaptation of a long Gothic novel that is tight, concentrated and, most importantly, dramatically effective. As American composer Bernard Herrmann found when he made an opera out of Wuthering Heights, there is so much in these books that simply making a workable libretto is a mammoth task. Berkeley’s opera is not perfect, and lovers of the Brontë original will no doubt bemoan the excision of their favourite bits (such as the Rivers sub-plot, or Jane’s desolate, early years), but the end result makes for a compelling night in the theatre, as well as a reasonably compelling listen on disc.

The truth is that people were always going to find good and bad in this venture. The sheer popularity of the book would probably give it a helping hand with audiences (it has proved extremely popular), but criticism from purists was inevitable. Also, finding a suitable musical language for this quintessentially 19th Century novel must have been daunting. In the end, by stripping it down to the bare bones of a timeless love story, Berkeley has been free to be as eclectic or as experimental as the moment demands. Thus, there are modern, sinewy dissonances, tritonic harmonies and orchestral glissandi mixing with waltz parodies and soaring Puccinian melodies. The overall impression, at least to me, is of a score somewhere between Britten and Berg, with a nod (at the end) to Lloyd-Webber thrown in for good measure.

I caught the opera on its regional tour, and there is no doubt that the stage concept and design added enormously to its success (it was all done with mirrors, as they say). As a purely aural experience, it has its limitations, but things are certainly helped by the quality of the playing and singing. Cast and band, after the Cheltenham premiere and subsequent tour, are right inside the score, managing some of Berkeley’s knottier textures and lines with consummate skill and musicianship.

As Tom Service’s helpful note reminds us, one of the more radical elements of the libretto is the attention given to the character of the ‘madwoman’ in the attic, Mrs. Rochester. They have been determined to make her a tragic, misunderstood figure, and the psychological intensity that this engenders takes us close to the emotional landscape of Wozzeck. Some of the angular, almost atonal melodic lines accompanying her scenes are fin-de-siècle Vienna, and the parodic material (snippets of Lucia di Lammermoor particularly), serves to reinforce this (Berg’s opera is littered with such allusions). The opera’s barely suppressed eroticism is another new light on the novel, taking us somewhere close to the twilight world of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Britten’s Turn of the Screw has also been mentioned by some critics, though I would not want to suggest that any of these references make it a hotch-potch of plagiarisms, simply that Berkeley’s models (and there aren’t many better) seem to help define the music’s emotional landscape.

Andrew Slater gives the most rounded and vocally satisfying performance of the cast, his warm, dark and secure baritone perfectly suiting the character of Rochester. His moving aria ‘Listen Jane, hear the rest of my tale’ is a good example of his many-layered characterisation, shifting from a brusque, surly front to the real man beneath. As Jane, Natasha Marsh has a pleasing voice, and shows more than just the vulnerability we expect, giving a harder edge to her character where required. Their final duet ‘Never again’ will, I guarantee, stick in your mind as readily as anything in Richard Strauss or Puccini and, in the best traditions of Romantic grand opera, is placed right at the end. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well, though some of the cackles from the deranged Mrs. Rochester sound uncomfortably like a pantomime witch, at least on disc.

A special mention must be made of the chamber orchestra. With only a dozen or so players, Berkeley conjures up some marvellous sonorities, and with a band (and cast) of this size will probably be assured of more performances. Michael Rafferty gets wonderfully detailed and expressive playing from them, and this aspect is one of the highlights of the disc. It is rather naughty of Chandos not to tell us it is a live recording, though in truth there are no real drawbacks, as much of the action is fairly static. Only in the conflagration scene towards the end do we get the noise and stage bumps that can be problematic for repeated listening on CD, and even here it is not for long.

To those who saw and enjoyed the opera in the theatre, this will need no recommendation. To those who are curious as to what Berkeley has done with one of our great literary masterpieces, I would say you could safely risk the price of one disc. There is much to enjoy.

Tony Haywood

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