DEEMS TAYLOR: Peter Ibbetson (complete opera) – Griffey, Flanigan, Zeller/ Seattle Symphony & Chorale/ Gerard Scwharz – Naxos 8.669016-17 (2 CDs) 2:14:18 ****:
To most music lovers and movie lovers, Deems Taylor is simply the guy who narrated Walt Disney’s 1940 Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse’s star turn as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Yet during the 1920s and 30s, Taylor was a musical force to be reckoned with. As an orchestral composer, his works were in demand by the likes of Stokowski and Mengelberg. As an influential music critic working for the New York World, he beat the drum for honest-to-God American opera since most of the operas written by Americans in the early twentieth century held the boards for only a short time, soon to sink without a trace.
This was not for lack of trying, since Giulio Gatti-Casazza, manager of the Metropolitan Opera, had produced nine operas by American composers between 1910 and 1920, none of which proved a lasting success. So Gatti tried another approach, sending his assistant Edward Ziegler to sound out opera authority Deems Taylor over lunch. When asked, somewhat disingenuously, who he thought would be the right composer to pen a hit for the Met, Taylor responded that he himself was the man for the job. Ziegler responded, “That’s why I invited you to lunch.”
The result was The King’s Henchman, a critical and audience success that nonetheless didn’t quite match Taylor’s own formula for a truly American opera, based as it was on an old Anglo-Saxon tale. So Taylor cast around for a story that he could turn into a libretto for his second opera. It’s kind of surprising, then, that he resorted to a novel by English writer George du Maurier. Du Maurier’s tale is set in the middle of the 19th century and in two countries, neither of them America! Nonetheless, Peter Ibbetson was a hit with critics and audiences alike, receiving 22 performances between 1931 and 1936, a record for an American opera, at least until Porgy and Bess entered the Metropolitan’s repertoire in 1985.
Briefly, the story of Peter Ibbetson is about two children, Gogo Pasquier and Mimsey Serakier, who live on the outskirts of Paris. As they grow, they become very attached to one another until the orphaned Gogo is removed to England and raised as Peter Ibbetson, by his overbearing and mean-spirited uncle Colonel Ibbetson. At a party attended by both Ibbetsons (Act I), the Colonel shows his true stuff, insulting Peter and generally making a boor of himself. In the meantime, Peter meets one Mary, Duchess of Towers, who instantly charms him.
Returning to Paris to revisit the haunts of his youth (Act II), he meets up with the Duchess again, and during conversation, they learn that they both had the same dream the night before. Slowly, at the emotional climax of the opera, they come to realize that they knew each other in their youth as Gogo and Mimsey. The dream they had, in which each dreams of the other, is a case of “dreaming true”—a delicious habit that Mimsey had taught Gogo as a child. Alas, their renewed love is not to blossom further; the Duchess, now a married woman, sadly bids Peter Ibbetson farewell.
Peter returns to England (Act III), where the villainous Colonel Ibbetson has concocted a story that he is actually the father of Peter, not “le beau Pasquier,” as Peter maintains. Maddened by the lie, Peter strikes the Colonel with his cane, killing him.
Peter is convicted and faces execution, though the Duchess manages to get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Every night for the next thirty years, Peter and Mary continue to “dream true,” meeting each other in the dream world until finally Mary no longer appears to Peter, and he knows she has died. At last Peter himself dies, and they join each other in the hereafter.
Though pretty typical romantic-opera fare, Taylor’s libretto is noteworthy for its concentration on dream states and the world of the unconscious, not widely explored opera territory at the time. Taylor uses the chorus, often singing French folk songs (either original or imitations penned by Taylor), to chart these dream states, creating the most impressionistic musical landscapes in the opera. Otherwise, Taylor’s influences are late romantic, including Massenet and especially Puccini. There are even traces of the Strauss of Der Rosenkavalier and in the dream sequence in prison (Act III, scene 8), a 20th-century equivalent of Wagner’s Liebestod. For the most part, Taylor’s idiom is not much more advanced than Puccini’s in La Boheme or Tosca. If you cotton to Puccini, you should find yourself luxuriating in Taylor’s plush melodies and in his lush highly effective orchestration. Fortunately, we have the superb Seattle Symphony to shape this music for us; a lesser body wouldn’t do it justice.
The original cast from the 1931 Met debut was starry indeed, with the great Lawrence Tibbett as Colonel Ibbetson. I believe that performance is still available on CD, probably in execrable sound, though I haven’t heard it. But I find Richard Zeller’s Colonel to be all that I imagine him to be: domineering, cruel, insulting. Anthony Dean Griffey’s Peter is a good foil, slightly naïve and good natured when we first meet him, and finally a broken man who still retains some of that innocent trust we see in him at first. Lauren Flanigan as Mary sings with the wide vibrato that sometimes masks an inability to hold a pitch. I don’t find her the equal of the male leads, but she is certainly an adequate Mary. The other roles are well handled, top to bottom.
As I noted earlier, I have nothing but praise for the Seattle Symphony, and Gerard Schwarz leads his forces quite well, shaping this very shapely music in the grand, cinematic fashion that Taylor must have envisioned for it. The Seattle Symphony Chorale, who must carry the vital dream sequences, sounds oddly youthful and lightweight. They could ideally have brought a little more heft to their numbers, but my beef is a minor one.
Since this is a live performance, there are the usual stage and audience noises, though they are really minimal, and overall the sound is full and rich, with that important orchestral contribution nicely prominent. Naxos supplies very good notes and a detailed synopsis by James Pegolotti. The libretto is available from the Naxos Website, which is a good thing since the Parisian scenes mix English and French text. For listeners who know Peter Ibbetson, this version should satisfy. For those who don’t, the opera and recording should come as very pleasant surprises. You may just wonder why Peter Ibbetson isn’t much better known.
(Jungian-leaning opera lovers should go nuts for this one…Ed.]
– Lee Passarella