MARIE NELSON BENNETT: Orpheus Lex (complete opera) – David Arnold (Orpheus), bar./ Wendy Baker (Eurydice) / Nathan Bahny, narrator/ The New York Virtuoso Singers/ The Artemis Ch. Ens./ Harold Rosenbaum – Ravello Records RR7885, 53:43 (4/29/14) [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
Marie Nelson Bennett is an octogenarian who studied with Paul Hindemith early on, and has been working on this opera for the last 20 years. Ending up in Utah (her birthplace) to get her PhD in composition, now in her later years she has worked with quite a lineup of noted conductors and orchestras, having completed eight symphonies, five concertos, an opera, oratorio, string quartet, trio, plays, songs, sonatas, you name it.
This is the familiar Orpheus legend, going to Hades to plead for the life of his beloved Eurydice who had died, and given a second chance if only he obeys the rules and doesn’t look back to see her. He does, she dies, and that’s it. But this has a twist; Orpheus is now a retired folk singer near the Wood River in Idaho, and this time he has to ignore time, which means he cannot remember Eurydice, or he will lose her again. That’s a lot tougher than looking back I would think. And there are a few other turns that I will not reveal here, but it’s a clever concoction on the old story.
The work is in “traditional” operatic fashion with set numbers, including narration, which almost makes it a sort of singspiel. Musically the influences are everywhere, including Hindemith-lite in places, Copland, hints of Bernstein, Les Six—but none of it derivative, as Bennett is her own voice.
The big problem with this release is the recording—it really deserved a lot better. The orchestra, which plays wonderfully, comes through very well, detailed and full. The singers sound as if they are projecting into an empty room (this is a concert performance) not towards the microphones (and they are very good), and the narrator is lost in a vacuous, echo haze that makes him barely understandable. I have really heard pirate recordings of operas that were clearer than this one, and it is a great disservice to a piece of music that should otherwise get a wide hearing. But it is what it is, and those who have an interest in this composer or this piece—which got a lot of publicity—should investigate.