TAYLOR: Peter Ibbetson (1930).
Anthony Dean Griffey (tenor); Laura Flanigan (soprano); Richard Zeller (baritone); Charles Robert Austin (bass); Lori Summers (mezzo); Seattle Symphony Chorale; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz.
Naxos 8.669016-17 TT: 144:18.

Hilarious, but not in a good way. Deems Taylor, during much of his lifetime, had a reputation as a prominent American composer. In retrospect, however, he strikes me more as a writer and personality who occasionally composed. By far the majority of his time went into newspaper criticism, lunch at the Algonquin (where he was the only musical member of the celebrated Round Table of wits), night-club hopping, music-appreciation books, and especially media appearances (notably on Information Please and Walt Disney's Fantasia) than into composing. He had a taste for the high life in New York and that took money that composing simply didn't supply. His musical output is awfully slender, both in quantity and in substance. This doesn't mean that he had little success with his music during his life. His operas for the Met (he got two commissions), The King's Henchman and Peter Ibbetson, went over big. Indeed, Ibbetson helped keep the Met afloat during the Depression. Nevertheless, most of Taylor's music -- excepting possibly the Through the Looking-Glass Suite -- has disappeared from general consciousness.

Taylor collaborated on the libretto with the English (and Broadway and, later, Hollywood) actress Constance Collier, perhaps best known for her dowager roles in Stage Door and A Damsel in Distress. The plot comes from a trash novel by Gerald du Maurier. I'll make my recap as brief as I can. Peter Ibbetson, a young architect, is the adopted nephew of Colonel Ibbetson, an affected letch and all-around S.O.B. Ibbetson's actually a French boy named Gogo Pasquier who had a beloved childhood friend named "Mimsey," now Mary, married and the Duchess of Towers. After many years, they see one another at a society ball in an English country house, feel an instant connection, ask about the other, but don't speak. After a fight with his uncle, who has insulted the young man's father, Peter returns to France and dreams of his childhood, Mimsey, and Mary. Mary tells him she too is dreaming and that they have entered each other's dream. Still dreaming, Peter observes his "uncle" forcing himself on his mother and tries to defend her. The dream ends. Peter and Mary meet shortly after for real, recognize each other, and Mary tells Peter that because she is "not free" (ie, married), they can never meet again, even in dreams. Peter returns to London. For reasons that escape me (other than convenience of the plot), the Colonel has been spreading the false rumor that Peter is not his nephew, but his son. Peter confronts him. After some initial lies, the Colonel confirms the truth, they fight, and Peter becomes so enraged that he accidentally kills the jerk. Peter is tried and found guilty (how bad a lawyer did he have?). The court sentences him to death but commutes the judgment to life in prison. Peter prefers death, but Mary sends him a message to "dream true" so that they can meet every night in dreams. Eventually, both of them die and meet, predictably, in death.

If you have read through the preceding without a groan or a grimace, you're at least one up on me. Nevertheless, for five seasons, Met audiences ate this pudding up with two spoons. The cast -- Edward Johnson as Peter, Lawrence Tibbett as Colonel Ibbetson, and Lucrezia Bori as Mary -- was certainly stellar. Nevertheless, with very little genuine drama or character in the libretto, we must ask whether the music saves the opera. It's certainly colorfully scored, in a Rimskian way. The idiom I'd describe as Debussy Lite. There are some lovely moments, particularly the scenes in France, where French tunes peek through the orchestral texture. The dream sequences, sorry to say, are hackneyed, though pretty enough. The best of the opera lies in the first prison scene in the last act, nevertheless a takeoff on the "Miserere" from Verdi's Il trovatore. Unfortunately, Taylor isn't a particularly talented musical dramatist. The cardboard characters of the libretto (which, we should remember, Taylor had a significant hand in writing) remain cardboard in the music -- all attitudes, no psychology. Opportunities for deepening the story, especially with Colonel Ibbetson and his relationship with Peter, pass Taylor by. The Colonel remains a simplistic, Iago-like cad. In short, the opera is no better than you'd expect, given the libretto.

The cast is good enough, with Flanigan as Mary, Zeller as the Colonel, and Austin as the prison chaplain standing out. Griffey as Peter has a good voice but also a bunch of annoyingly bad singing habits he's undoubtedly picked up from Opera, with a capital O. It's a live performance, as so many opera releases are these days. The orchestra makes only one noticeable flub, over in an instant. Balance is, on the whole, good, though at times the orchestra swamps the singers. No libretto comes with the disc, but Naxos provides you with a URL. As with most Naxos libretti, the format is expensive to print out -- 22 pages. Overall, I'm happy to have heard Ibbetson, but I won't go back any time soon.

S.G.S. (January 2011)