GLASS: The Voyage (Complete Opera) – Soloists and Chorus of the Landestheater Linz/ Bruckner Orchestra Linz/ Dennis Russell Davies, conductor – Orange Mountain Music

by | Mar 13, 2007 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

GLASS: The Voyage (Complete Opera) – Soloists and Chorus of the Landestheater Linz/ Bruckner Orchestra Linz/ Dennis Russell Davies, conductor – Orange Mountain Music omm 0017 (two discs), 59:42 & 76:26 ***:

I guess I should start by saying that I am not a Philip Glass fanatic—while I appreciate much of his music, and have enjoyed much of it over the years, the repetitive rhythms (no matter how varied), the similar melodic fragments (no matter how original), and the sameness of the orchestration in all of his music (he is not a very original orchestrator) combine to make listening to some of his efforts more of a chore than a joy.

His film music is to me the most successful, for he can create a wide palate of special mood-enhancing situations that most effectively supply the scene with ambiance. Also, most of the film scores, by nature, are done piecemeal, with little need for long, drawn out passages of music. Glass’s music does not develop, at least in any traditional sense, remaining broadly written in block sections, with repeating rondo-sonata like passages recurring frequently.

None of this makes him a “bad” composer, of course. The final judgment will always be in the ears of the listener, and he has no few fans out there in the classical world, many who have lined up for hours to get into one of his operas, following the composer with groupie-like glee and an intensity reserved only for the rarest of rock stars. But for me the important thing in any work of art—ultimately—is whether or not the work has gripping power, the ability to etch itself into the aural imagination and insist on a repeat performance, if not on the player, then in the mind.

To date Glass has written 13 full-fledged operas, and five chamber operas. The Voyage is in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Columbus in the new world, and premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1992, holding number 11 in the Glass listing. It was originally recorded for Nonesuch, and this new recording is on Glass’s own label, Orange Mountain.

This work has to fall into the “fantastical” category, unlike some of Glass’s historical operas, which he seems to have turned against, at least conceptually. “I’ve never felt that ‘reality’ was well-served in an opera house. And I think that this is even more true when the opera is based on historical events”. These words strike me as a little strange, seeing how the vast number of important operas in the repertory today are precisely “real” and “historical” for the reasons that this is the stuff that human drama is made of, and audiences respond to it. Even the large Wagnerian corpus, mythological in content though they are, are simply props for very real human elements.

This may be where The Voyage fails dramatically, at least for me. The three acts are all dedicated to the voyage of discovery, and Glass makes no bones in the notes about his admiration for Columbus. Yet the opera only peripherally dwells on him. Act I sees a spaceship approaching earth at the end of the Ice Age, Act II sees Columbus on the day of his departure from Spain, and Act III returns to the science fictional account of the spaceship, this time in the year 2092 on a space station, where the occupants are seeking the origins of life. There is much philosophizing along the way, some arias that don’t seem really locked into the dramatic whole (for example, in Act I the ship’s mate and the ship’s doctor suddenly relive their childhoods before the ship crashes, but these personages have absolutely nothing to do with the subsequent storyline), and even the parallel story of Act III with Columbus where the futuristic scientists abandon family on the start of their own voyage of discovery doesn’t seem to fit in the context of an opera. It seems to me that this would have been much more suited to an oratorio type presentation as a simple tribute to the spirit of exploration.

Many will no doubt disagree, especially those for whom every note from this composer is as divine writ. It is interesting along the way, there is some attractive music, and the performances and sound are all one could ask for in this recording. But in the end, I seriously doubt that this music is going to be something that we are gathering round in 30 years, comparing all 40 recordings…

— Steven Ritter 

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