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James STEVENS (b. 1923)
The Reluctant Masquerade (2000)
Mayo Shono (singer) – Natzuko
Stephen Gadd (baritone) – Mishima
Susan Bickley (mezzo) – Satoko
City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra/Cem Mansur
rec. Prague 2006 (no further details provided)
PRISTINE CLASSICAL PACO500 [47:00]

 


British composer James Stevens studied with Benjamin Frankel and Nadia Boulanger. He is best known as a composer of film music although his oeuvre ranges widely across the usual genres. Some biographical information and a list of works have been put together by Edmund Whitehouse although, surprisingly, this short opera is listed as an orchestral work.

Stevens also wrote the libretto for The Reluctant Masquerade, a story based on the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima who committed seppuku in 1970. This is a ritual form of suicide involving self-disembowelment then beheading by an assistant: his homosexual lover, Morita who in turn is then beheaded. I spare you no details here because neither does Stevens in the opera. The act itself is accompanied by a spoken commentary delivered by the composer, here sounding much younger than his eighty-plus years. Beforehand Mishima has delivered his last work to the publisher – The Sea of Fertility – the central character of which – Satoko, a reformed prostitute – also features in the final part of this work.

In the first part, leading up to the act of seppuku, Mishima has taken over the Eastern Army headquarters with his small private army and tied up General Mashita. He reflects on his death to music which reminded me of Britten, whose church parable Curlew River was also Japanese-inspired. The mood is initially heroic but then becomes calm as Stevens imitates popular ballad culture to the words “It isn’t face, it is isn’t race; What is it I look back upon?...” Once the gruesome act is over, Natsuko – Mishima’s grandmother – sings a lullaby that could have come from a Broadway musical.

The second part is an extended orchestral interlude entitled The Buddha weeps. This is deeply elegiac and the most original part of the work musically. The Buddha is weeping not for Mishima but for the state of the world – the underlying inspiration for his suicide.

The final section is a long soliloquy called Satoko’s song. She is now aged 83 and a Mother Superior at a convent. Her reflections on life are coloured by denial and uncertainty, and provide a moving conclusion to the work in a similar musical idiom to the opening.

The Reluctant Masquerade had quite a long gestation, Seppuku and Lullaby originally having being conceived as a self-contained work. The complete libretto is dated 1993 and the music was finished in 2000. The recording took four years to prepare and was paid for by the composer. I presume it has not yet been staged – and there would be some challenges in doing so. This well-sung and powerfully realised recording makes a case for that, perhaps alongside an established one-acter such as Puccini’s Suor Angelica.

If the above has whetted your appetite, then there is a substantial sound sample from the first part available on the Pristine Classical website alongside an amusing interview with the composer. This laudable enterprise started up a couple of years ago focusing on historical re-issues but has recently begun to include modern recordings. The whole opera can be downloaded in MP3 format for 6 Euros and it’s a bargain. It is also possible to download the libretto and print off CD covers. This is what I did – it took only a few minutes and the sound quality is perfectly fine. I can also recommend downloading Stevens’s Concertetto Concitato – a mini piano concerto lasting just under 10 minutes, and which could be burnt on to the same CD. Trenchant and powerful this is delivered with some panache by Jaromir Klepac, also accompanied by forces from Prague.

The work of James Stevens is hardly familiar but here makes a powerful impression. In The Reluctant Masquerade he deliberately fuses multiple musical idioms into a coherent and compelling experience.

Patrick C Waller


 

 


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