MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The Juniper Passion (complete opera) – Pene Pati (Carlo)/ Matthew Landreth (Joe)/ James Ioelu (Bruno)/ Lilia Carpinelli (Maria)/ Julia Booth (Helen)/ Stephanie Acraman (Jessie)/ Paul Gittins (nar.)/ Indra Hughes, organ/ Auckland Philharmonia Orch. Members/ Rachael Griffiths-Hughes – 1-2-3-4 GO/Atoll ACD 243 (2 CDs), 95:48 [Distr. by Naxos] ***:
The Juniper Passion has been called “New Zealand’s largest and most ambitious multimedia contemporary music project to date.” A modern opera, it combines the skills of distinguished arts and media practitioners to tell a story both unique to New Zealand and universal in nature.” In 1944 during World War II, the Battle of Monte Cassino resulted in an Allied victory, but with a loss of life totaling over 105,000 deaths, including many New Zealand soldiers. Librettist John G. Davies had a father in this battle, and he uses a lot of memorabilia from those days in support of his storytelling. “Opera” is not really a good word here; “dramatic presentation” would be far more accurate as it involves dancers who present most of the action, while the singers concentrate solely on their roles, including the interruptions of a narrator.
This work obviously has intense personal connections to both composer and librettist, and that being the case I hate to even attempt to criticize it. But there are some extreme weaknesses from a simple aural standpoint that have to be pointed out, especially as they have seen fit to put out on CD. The music is very accessible; a lot of it based on chant, but is very lethargic and drone-like, qualities which can get very repetitive and irritating over a period of time. There is little in the way of dramatic contrast except for a few spots, and the monotonous and almost depressing aspects of the singing do not inspire a sense of hope or ultimate redemption.
And this is exactly what the creators are trying to do. This multimedia event, complete with 3D images and electronic infusions into the score, tries to explore themes of humanity, love, intrigue, betrayal and redemption. The lives of a Benedictine monk, a German officer and New Zealand soldier intersect with fatal and unforeseen consequences. As one web-placard advertising the concert says, “While highlighting the futility and terrible waste of war Davies says that through its text and music The Juniper Passion aims to interrogate our differences which might lead us to an understanding of sameness. To see ourselves in the light of what we share, rather than what we hold separate is the purpose of this work.” In other words, the piece is attempting to project universality onto the work, something difficult to do when starting from a piece as personal, maybe even intrusively so, as this.
It’s obvious from the first ten minutes that the score alone is powerless to do this; simply hearing the work exposes its weaknesses and only serves to remind one that something is missing. That “something” is the stage; a piece that relies on dancers to project the action is doomed to fail when presented only on audio compact disc. Watching brief snippets of the piece on YouTube only confirmed my hypothesis—an entirely different experience emerged, one that was replete with drama, fire, passion, and a story line that makes a lot more sense than when simply listening to it. Opera, to be successful, as I have always maintained, must be able to stand on its own musically; the music’s the thing. That is not the case here, and that’s why I really think calling this work an “opera” is doing it a disservice. It’s a powerful multimedia theater experience that must be apprehended existentially, and in the full immersion of all that it has to offer.
The singers are all excellent here—no weak links anywhere, with vocal quality very good, as are the eleven members of the orchestra (string quintet, flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, piano, and percussion. The sound on this disc is also first-rate, with no complaints. But if you are really interested in the work, get a copy of the DVD instead; that’s the only way to be fair to the composer and to the piece itself. [Except that a DVD doesn’t seem to be available, at least as yet…Ed.]