Howard Shore & the Mezzos

Better known for his movie soundtracks for directors like Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg, academy award winning composer Howard Shore it seems has a bit of a passion for vocal music as well. With a string of movie scores under his belt since the late 1970’s it is probably for his dense and richly orchestrated film scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films by Peter Jackson that he is best known though a personal favourite of mine is his hallucinogenic free jazz score to one of my favourite movies of all time, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, a dystopian semi biographical reworking of the infamous William Burroughs Novel.


Howard Shore

He first work for the stage was an opera adaptation of another Cronenberg film, The Fly which was premiered at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 2008. The opera was in many ways an homage to the film for which Shore had also written the soundtrack back in 1986.
Less well known is that Shore has also written a number of vocal song cycles for the concert hall and like myself seems to be more attracted to the deeper female voice composing two song cycles for mezzo-soprano. The most recent called ‘L’Aube’, a song cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra was written as a tribute to Canadian mezzo Maureen Forrester and was premiered on November 20th 2017.

MF Trib

The premiere of L’Aube, A Tribute To Maureen Forrester.

An earlier work also written for mezzo is ‘A Palace Upon the Ruins’. A song cycle which is strangely sung in German considering Shore is a Canadian composer and the libretto was written by his partner Elizabeth Cotnoir.
A Palace Upon the Ruins has none of the sweeping orchestration of the film scores that made his name and is very much in the style of German lieder by composers like Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert (which might explain the German text but this is still quite odd in my estimation anyway). The musical accompaniment at times is noticeably sparse and has, also like lieder, quite a dark and melancholic feel. This lack of density in the accompaniment does have the advantage of letting the vocal lines, which are at times quite delicate shine through quite beautifully and a good mezzo is always beautiful to listen to.

There are six songs in the cycle and each has the title of an element or weather condition, Fog, Ice, Water, Cloud, Rain and Sun. If You like Shore’s film scores this may not be for you but if German art song is your thing then you will probably find this work quite interesting.


Mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano.

A recording of the cycle was made with American mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano and was released on a CD with various other musical selections by Shore as ‘A Palace Upon the Runes, Selected Works’. Some of the other pieces on the CD are quite interesting. ‘Peace‘ which is a setting of a text by Eleanor Roosevelt and ‘The Garden‘ both have an attractive traditional sacred music feel and these are followed by a selection called ‘Six Pieces‘ which seem to be quite ambient and unconnected pieces but interestingly four of them are performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, one of them ‘V‘ being an interesting vocal piece sung by Clara Sanabras (yes, another mezzo!). The final track ‘Catania‘ is a quite interesting short solo piano piece performed by Lang Lang.

As I mentioned earlier, probably not for the Howard Shore soundtrack fan but interesting none the less and it shows another side of his compositional interests and talents.

Don Giovanni Unmasked

It’s a wonderful season for Irish fans of Mozart and his operatic masterpiece Don Giovanni in particular with productions both north and south of the border. Opera Theatre Company premiered their very well received production with a new translation by Roddy Doyle at the Gaiety Theatre as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival earlier this month to packed houses before moving on to Cork Opera House and Northern Ireland Opera will be presenting their production at the Grand Opera House Belfast from Friday 18th November. The Belfast production is tinged with a touch of sadness as it is the final work produced for the company by Oliver Mears who was so instrumental in the creation of Northern Ireland Opera in 2010 and its achievements and successes since.


Two Irish productions of Don Giovanni this season.

Anyone who has been to one of Mears productions will appreciate his vision, creativity and directorial skills, skills which he is now taking to London as the newly appointed Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

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I’m always very interested in ways to attract younger people to the wonders and beauty of opera whether it be the outreach and schools programmes of opera companies or the comic strips of operas published by the now unfortunately defunct Sinfinimusic, so having attended Don Giovanni in Dublin and as usual having come away from the theatre inspired by the experience and humming the tunes I was keen to let my 13 year old son experience something of the opera. After attempting to help him with his algebra homework I started  doing a bit of digging online and stumbled across ‘Don Giovanni Unmasked’. This is a  film interpretation of the opera directed by Barbara Willis Sweete who directs many of the Metropolitan Opera Live productions and features the amazing Russian Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as both Don Giovanni himself and his trusty servant Leporello. (Hvorostovsky is recovering from a brain tumor he suffered last year and best wishes to him for a speedy recovery. In bocca al lupo Dmitri!).


Dmitri Hvorostovsky, ‘Double’ star of Don Giovanni Unmasked.

This ingenious retelling of the story is perfect for younger people. It is a shortened version of the opera coming in at less than an hour and though sung in the original Italian the subtitles are short and succinct and make the story perfectly clear. Hvorostovsky as Leporello and the cast of the opera are in a 1930’s cinema and watch themselves perform Don Giovanni on screen as Giovanni’s dalliances eventually result in his downfall and damnation. The way the story unfolds is ingenious and entertaining and the singing is quite spectacular. I certainly recommend this film as a primer for Don Giovanni for newer and more seasoned opera fans alike and it is worth watching for Hvorostovsky’s singing alone which is intense, dramatic and simply spectacular.

My son sat through it, understood it and by all accounts enjoyed it. I call that a result!

Don Giovanni Unmasked is available from Amazon here

Tickets for Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Don Giovanni can be booked here

In Parenthesis

A lot of literature has sprung from the experiences of the Great War and one of the greatest examples is the epic poem ‘In Parenthesis’ by the Welsh artist and poet David Jones. Jones had served in the trenches throughout the war with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was present at the assault on Mametz Wood at the opening of the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

David Jones

David Jones. Author of In Parenthesis

His experiences in the trenches and particularly the assault on Mametz where the Welsh Division lost almost 4000 men was the inspiration for In Parenthesis which Jones started writing in 1928 and it was eventually completed and published in 1937. In 2015 Welsh National Opera commissioned English composer Iain Bell to compose an opera based on Jones’ poem to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. Bell, who’s quite new to the world of opera, is a very talented composer who specialises in choral works and In Parenthesis is his third opera. (The role of Kitty in his first opera ‘A Harlots Progress’ was created by Irish Mezzo Soprano Tara Erraught).


Composer Iain Bell.

In parenthesis consists of two acts both about an hour-long with no overture so we are straight into the action where the lead character Private John Ball and his platoon are preparing for their march to Southampton to board the ship that will take them to France. Starting in the first act, as the men march to the coast, and continuing throughout the opera there are some wonderful choruses (A strong element of male choral singing would be expected in an opera about the Welsh). These choruses cement the idea of the common experiences of a group of soldiers but what separates Ball from the rest of his comrades is that he seems to have premonitions of the horrors to come, horrors that more slowly dawn on the rest of the men. Ball even sees the boarding of the ship in Southampton as ‘A slippery gangway to hell’ and these visions haunt him throughout the opera.


Sergeant Snell (Mark le Brocq) with the WNO Platoon Chorus

Also from the opening scene we have a female chorus who’s vocalising is like sirens calling the soldiers to their deaths like the sirens of ancient greek mythology. Their singing is haunting and beautiful but has an underlying unsettling darkness to it and the allusion works very well as the audience knows the faith that awaits the soldiers.

The soldiers are quite pleasantly surprised when they arrive in France and sing of the beauty of the countryside ‘O Flower, who’s fragrance tender’ but the arrival of the battle hardened ‘Marne Sargent’ puts an end to their lightheartedness as he fills them in on what to expect when they go over the top. This harrowing advice is soon followed by an artillery bombardment that dispels any lingering doubts they had about the nightmare they were heading into.

In Parenthesis_ WNO,COMPOSER; Iain Bell, Private John Ball; Andrew Bidlack, Bard of Brittannia_HQ Officer; Peter Coleman_Wright, Bard of Germania_Alice the Barmaid_The Queen of the Woods; Alexandra Deshorties, Lieutenant Jenkins; George Humphreys, Lance Corporal Lewis; Marcus Farnsworth, Sergeant Snell; Mark Le Brocq, Dai Greatcoat; Donald Maxwell, The Marne Sergeant ;Graham Clark,

Andrew Bidlack as Private John Ball and Marcus Farnsworth as Lieutenant Jenkins. Picture: Bill Cooper

Act Two is set six months after they arrive in France and they are preparing for the opening of the Battle of the Somme. Great tension and fear is building up among the soldiers as they contemplate their fate yet they try to distract themselves with drinking, singing and reading. They console themselves by saying the real war is much further south only to find out that their new orders are to ‘March South!’ A grim reality dawns on one and all.


Peter Coleman-Wright as Bard of Brittannia and Alexandra Deshorties as Bard of Germania stand over the trench.

While on night watch Ball can hear the sound of the rats gnawing on the bones of the dead bodies on no man’s land Scrut, scrut, scrut’ and at dawn the whistles blow and they are ordered over the top to attack the enemy positions in the woods. As they enter the wood some of the platoon are shot and even the trees themselves come alive and start to attack the soldiers killing them. Death doesn’t come from the enemy machine-guns and shells alone but from the very landscape itself. This is a wonderful interpretation of the fear and paranoia that has gripped the soldiers as the landscape itself wishes them dead.


Alexandra Deshorties as The Queen of the Woods torments the soldiers.

The whole opera is quite tragic and highly dramatic and is certainly gripping viewing. Despite the rather depressing subject matter there are numerous lighter moments and the singing is wonderful. There is a strong religious undercurrent running through the whole opera which is understandable as Jones spent many years living in Christian arts communities and after converting to Catholicism he became fascinated by its mysteries and ceremonies. In an opera season which has had a number of big profile controversies about graphic and gorey scenes it is refreshing to see the carnage of the Somme dealt with in a more creative way with less appeal to simple shock value.


The Welsh at Mametz Wood by Christopher Williams (1918).

L’Amour de Loin

L’Amour de Loin (Love from Afar) is the first opera by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho with a libretto by the French Lebanese author Amin Maalouf. It is a wonderfully evocative and impressionistic work that conjures up the romantic seascapes of the imagination. A seductive opera that reels you into its magical dream world and envelops you in its fantastical story.

Kaija Saariaho

Kaija Saariaho

A lot of modern opera can be quite dissonant and percussive and while L’Amour de Loin doesn’t totally eschew the dissonant tendency in a lot of contemporary stage composition it’s real inspiration is the beautifully flowing and mesmerising polyphony of medieval choral music.

It tells the story of Jaufré, Prince of Blaye, who becomes infatuated with a woman of the East who only exists in his imagination. A pilgrim returning from the Levant tells Jaufré that such woman actually exists, Clémence, Countess of Tripoli. On retuning to the East, the Pilgrim then tells Clémence about Jaufré, a French troubadour and how he, having only imagined her, has fallen madly in love with her.
Jaufré decides he must meet Clémence and sets sail for the East and although Clémence had been quite annoyed by the thoughts of this distant admirer, as Jaufré’s ship draws ever closer she starts longing to meet her mysterious distant lover.

Unknown to Clémence, Jaufré is getting ever more ill during his voyage, he is consumed by regrets that maybe he has done the wrong thing and this is folly. Upon his ships arrival in Tripoli he is dying. When the ship docks, Clémence rushes to meet this man who adored her from afar and who she now is totally in love with also.
Dying in her arms Jaufré and Clémence declare their love for each other. Clémence curses Heaven and with remorse and loss enters a convent. The Opera ends with Clémence on her knees deep in prayer, but who is she praying to…

Daniella Kurz c Ursula Kaufmann

Daniella Kurz as Clémence © Ursula Kaufmann

This is a stunningly beautiful piece of contemporary musical theatre that is firmly in the tradition of a classical operatic style and the production staged by English National Opera strongly reminds me of the work of the wonderful English film director Peter Greenaway, particularly his ‘Prosperos Books’. A vivid yet dreamlike world that magically blends movement with dialogue.


from the English National Opera production

For the Bergen International Festival in 2008 Michael Elmgreen and Ignar Dragset created an animated version of the opera which can bring a work like this to a whole new audience and is strangely captivating despite its very limited colour palate.