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Michael WILLIAMS (b. 1962)
The Juniper Passion - opera in three acts (2012) [95:33]
Full track-list and performance details at end of review
ATOLL ACD 243 [49:15 + 46:18] 

Experience Classicsonline


This two CD set presents a recording of The Juniper Passion, a three act opera which was first performed in April 2012 in Hamilton, New Zealand. Michael F. Williams composed the music. Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Music at the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Waikato in Hamilton, NZ. John Davies wrote the libretto as a tribute to his father, who fought at the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in 1943-1944 with the 2nd New Zealand Division. John is Curriculum Leader-Live Performance at the Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland.
 
In 1943, the 2nd New Zealand Division moved from North Africa to Italy to join the US 5th Army for what turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, the Battle of Monte Cassino. Located about 80 miles southeast of Rome, Monte Cassino is about 1500 feet in elevation, and the highest point in the region. A monastery run by the Benedictine Order was first constructed on the hilltop during 529 AD. During the fall of 1943, the Germans occupied the hilltop, affording them a strategic military advantage as long as they could occupy and hold it. From December 1943 to May 1944 the Germans and Allies battled at Monte Cassino, resulting in at least 114,000 troops killed or wounded and the bombing and total destruction of the monastery.
 
The libretto describes the horrors of battle as seen through the eyes of a New Zealand soldier; a brother’s missing leg, dragging his brother to safety, the pain of a sniper’s bullet ripping through his neck, visions of his youth in rural New Zealand as he loses consciousness, and ultimately slipping away to his death. Another scene set 25 years later describes a widow and daughter visiting a soldier’s grave site at the war cemetery at Monte Cassino, where they meet a former German officer and a Benedictine monk who had been at the battle. The players in this drama discuss war, God, right and wrong, and the meaning of it all.
 
The music for this opera is well-written and suited to the tone and scope of the libretto. Williams adopts various styles in this opera. Beautiful melodic solos alternate between the baritones and sopranos and are interspersed with segments of dialogue in Italian. Gregorian chant is are used throughout to represent the monastery and the life going on there despite the war raging all around. The dramatic effects are further heightened by digital sound-effects used to enhance the orchestration which comprises: string quartet, bass, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, percussion and organ. The vocalists and the orchestra all perform well.  

This two CD set alone cannot of course capture the visual impact of war or of this momentous episode. The music does not carry the opera. The original includes choreography, computer graphic sets and actual photographs taken during the Battle of Monte Cassino. The essence of the battle and the message that is meant to be conveyed can only be hinted at rather than expressed. One references on the internet assures us that the “performance is through dance with only minimal movement and interaction by the singing cast.” It is to be hoped that the opera will be released on video some day so that the listeners may fully experience what Michael F. Williams and John Davies have created.
 
This CD comes with the libretto and liner notes. There are several photographs of Monte Cassino included with the notes that show the total devastation after the battle.
 
Bruce McCollum

Full Tracklist and performance details
Pene Pati - Carlo, a Benedictine monk
Matthew Landreth - Joe, a New Zealand soldier
James Ioelu - Bruno, a German officer
Lilia Carpinelli - Maria, Carlo’s sister
Julia Booth - Helen, Joe and Jessie’s daughter
Stephanie Acraman - Jessie, Joe’s wife
Chorus: Stephanie Acraman, Julia Booth, Lilia Carpinelli, Amitai Pati (a monk), Ian Campbell (the Abbott), David Griffiths (a soldier)
Paul Gittins (narrator),
Lara Hill, Elena Abramova (violin), Susan Bierre (viola), James Tennant (cello), Gordon Hill (bass), Adrianna Lis (flute), Gordon Richards (clarinet), Brent Grapes (trumpet), Douglas Cross (trombone), Katherine Austin (piano), Vadim Simongauz, Eric Renick (percussion), Michael F. Williams (sound effects), Indra Hughes (organ)/Rachael Griffiths-Hughes
rec. Stebbing’s Studio, Auckland, NZ, July-September 2011

CD1 Act 1 [32:00]
Prologue [6:08]
Act 1 Scene 1 [3:40]
The sun climbed into the sky [2:12]
I can not see [1:24]
I could hear my brother [4:40]
Act 1 Scene 2 [3:25]
Act 1 Scene 3 [2:18]
I am Maria [3:20]
Hier ist das Schlachtfeld [1:56]
I thought I’d never [3:00]
CD 1 Act 2 [17:15]
Act 2 Scene 1 [1:47]
Act 2 Scene 2 [1:20]
Act 2 Scene 3 [4:35]
In saecula [3:38]
Artworks [5:55]
CD 2 Act 3 [46:18]
Act 3 Scene 1 [2:43]
Act 3 Scene 2 [3:31]
Act 3 Scene 3 [4:21]
Women create life [5:59]
Act 3 Scene 4 [10:00]
On a cold and dirty afternoon [9:33]
Joe’s death [5:14]
Epilogue [4:55] 

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