Peggy Glanville-Hicks: Sappho – Opera in Three Acts, libretto from the play by Lawrence Durrell

Deborah Polaski, Martin Homrich, Scott MacAllister, Roman Trekel, Wolfgang Koch, John Tomlinson, Coro Gulbenkian, Orquestra Gulbenkian, Jennifer Condon conductor
Classical, New Music, Opera
Toccata Classics TOCC 0154-55 (2 CDs)
Reviewed by , April 25th, 2014

Much has already been written on the amazing story of the resurrection of this  previously unperformed opera of Australian/US composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks to the state of recording. A ten year Odyssey of single-minded determination, Jennifer Condon decided on bringing this work to the public after first hearing a performance of the final aria at age 16. She has managed to do the unthinkable and put the opera together from the nearly-unreadable score, and gain the support of soloists and orchestra alike. The CD, recorded last year in Portugal, was completed in time for the centenary of the composer’s birth on 29 December 2012.

Conductor and grand organiser, Jennifer Condon

Conductor and grand organiser, Jennifer Condon

The opera was written for Maria Callas and the San Francisco Opera in 1963 but rejected for being too much reliant on modal harmonies and ‘unacceptable dramatic timing’. Despite substantial rewrites which Glanville-Hicks declared responsible for her failing sight, the piece was left unperformed. The sight problems proved to be due to a brain tumour, which was treated with surgery in 1965. Unfortunately, Glanville-Hicks was unable to do much composition from that time.

The libretto for the work was mostly Glanville-Hicks’ adaptation of the play Sappho by Lawrence Durrell. Glanville-Hicks incorporated lines of poetry attributed to Sappho and altered Durrell’s ending to finish with the exile of Sappho and her husband Kreon.

Condon managed to secure the Gulbenkian Orquestra and Coro for the recording, which she conducted. Soloists donated their services for free to keep costs down. But the costs were substantial and the sponsors few, so it is indeed due to her determination and personal struggle that the project has come to a completed recording.

Being quite familiar with the ABC recording of Glanville-Hick’s earlier opera The Transposed Heads (1954), I eagerly awaited the opportunity to hear this first recording of Peggy Glanville-Hicks’ fifth opera. The earlier opera, based on an Indian legend, is rich and colourful with its use of melody, rhythm and instrumentation. Percussion is very much to the forefront. The rendering of Indian-like melodies by orchestral instruments and the parts sung/spoken in a very plum English accent give it a little bit of the feel of Gilbert and Sullivan, but driving rhythms and big melodies help to engage the listener.

The opera Sappho deals with the famed poet of the Greek island of Lesbos as an older woman, frustrated in life and bored in love. The story is very much of internal struggle, and as a result the drama sometimes drags.

The orchestration is quite large, probably too big, with subsequent balance problems. Condon has hinted that future recordings or performances might see the instrumentation thinned down a little to allow the singers the chance to draw from a greater range of dynamics. I would suggest that it would also allow for a different, lighter character of voice. I feel the Wagner-esque nature of some of the soloists in this recording functions to the detriment of the melodic lines. I so liked the absolute clarity of Gerald English’s tenor voice in the earlier opera and really pined to hear such clarity in Sappho.

Of the soloists, only Scott MacAllister as Pittakos approaches that clarity, although a brief excursion up to a high C pushes him slightly beyond his limits. As Condon has highlighted, an understanding of the libretto is crucially important in this piece, including lines of Sappho’s own poetry. The other soloists’ voices, particularly Deborah Polaski as Sappho and Martin Homrich as Phaon, sang in a way that often occluded the text.

Perhaps to appease the San Francisco Opera Company, Glanvillle-Hicks’ orchestration for this piece is significantly less colourful than for the earlier opera. While modal melodies feature prominently, these are underlaid with sometimes dense harmonies. The use of percussion is quite reserved, which has the effect of making the piece sound far less frivolous than Transposed Heads — the instrumentation by comparison sounds a little bland. Perhaps if Glanville-Hicks’ sketches exist, Condon might consider returning to Glanville-Hicks’ original conception of the piece.

That said, there are echoes of the grand themes of the earlier opera, and the larger chorus numbers are very engaging. The final aria, the piece which initially drew Condon into the project, despite sometimes losing the voice under the ebb and flow of the orchestra in this recording, is quite beautiful with its distant doom-laden final chords … I just wish I could understand what Sappho was singing.

Condon has done an astounding thing in bringing this project to fruition. She has proved what she is capable of. What can we look forward to in the future?


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