JAKE HEGGIE: Out of Darkness: An Opera of Survival – Caitlin Lynch, sop./ Sarah Larsen, mezzo/ Morgan Smith, bar./ Music of Remembrance/ Mina Miller – Naxos 8.559770, 78:44 ****:
JAKE HEGGIE: “Connection: Three Song Cycles” = Natural Selection; Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia; Eve-Song – Regina Zona, sop./ Kathleen Tagg, p. – Naxos 8.559764, 58:40 ****:
Jake Heggie just might be the best art song composer since Ned Rorem. There is very little of his music that I have heard that is not, at least, highly engaging, and can think of few composers today who wed the word and melody in such a natural, unaffected manner, perfectly suited to the speech. These discs just bolster that opinion.
I do think that the Out of Darkness claim to be an “opera” is a little inflated, despite the fact that there have been other similar works that opt for the genre-title as well. But “dramatic monolog” seems to fit much better for part 1 (Another Sunrise), and in fact the three parts of the “opera” are in effect three cycles related by story line or overall topic—the Holocaust. Each could be performed separately. The first takes the story of Krystyna Zywulska, a Jewish Polish resistance member who was captured and taken to Auschwitz, where she was able to secure a relatively “safe” job during her tenure there. She also wrote lots of poetry about her time and experiences, and this is actually set in part 2, Farewell, Auschwitz, with an expanded set of singers instead of only one. Part 3, For a Look or Touch, looks at the reflections of Tad Beck, a young homosexual in pre-war Berlin, who lost a lover to the Nazis. Each of the works is profoundly affecting, and quite beautiful. These are recent (2012-13) commissions.
Connection gathers three song cycles, each very early on in the composer’s career, written before any of his operas (1996-99). Each was written for a specific soprano who was an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera when Heggie was staff writer there, so each has a special and personal connection to the artist at hand. Natural Selection traces a young woman’s search for identity through a series of relationships which—happily—end up with the “right” guy. Songs and Sonnets to Ophelia show the composer, through one of his own texts and three by Edna St. Vincent Millay, exploring the depths and hidden thought processes only hinted at in Shakespeare’s tragedy, rejecting the idea of her as a victim. Finally, Eve-Song mediates on the various perspective of the Biblical Eve through a variety of stylistic genres (cabaret, jazz, lullaby, et al), a nearly 30-minute piece that requires great stamina and a profound sense of dramatic urgency and acting effect.
What strikes me through all of these pieces is the remarkable consistency of approach; Heggie doesn’t seem to be one who is too concerned about stylistic “development” over the years. Instead he focuses—always—only on the texts at hand, and their dramatic possibilities. I am not sure that a blind hearing would indicate a distance of 15 years between these pieces. Nothing wrong with that—consistency and quality is all that matters, and this composer has those in spades. Excellent performances and recordings.