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September 26, 2013 11:44 am
Composer/pianist Julian Joseph presented the main section of this evening’s performance as a work in progress, and that is exactly what it turned out to be. The Windows into Tristan and Isolde were five somewhat isolated scenes from a yet-to-be-completed opera re-imagining the legend of Tristan and Isolde. Joseph set each scene, sketched the characters the four vocalists were playing and provided narrative links. And this took time, as the action was transferred to Transylvania, and the plot, involving drug barons, murder, London and volcanic ash, seemed worthy of a TV mini-series. To say the least, it made for a bitty, start-stop second half.
That said, the basic premise works, the music is solid – Joseph and his sextet delivered a sparky set as a curtain-raiser – and Carleen Anderson, playing Isolde, was stunning. As she swooped seamlessly through the entire vocal range, blending her distinctive nu-soul tone with a powerful, operatic vibrato, she exuded fragility and the sense that tragedy was in the offing.
Joseph’s score, rather like those of Wynton Marsalis, draws on Ellington, modal jazz and modernist composition. The first two scenes were sombre and slow with gospel-voiced brass and vocalised trumpet, the third featured jaunty jazz vocalese and “I Come from Everywhere and Nowhere” offered jagged modernist riffs. The finale was a tempo-changing jigsaw themed on “Do You Believe in Love/A Force Stronger than Love”.
But with precious little improvisation, the main focus was on the singing, and on Mike Phillips’ libretto – he listed “love, self-sacrifice, nationalism and notions of will” in a short introductory speech. Anderson was captivating throughout, though not at others’ expense, and the opening duets with Christine Tobin, playing first Isolde’s mother and then her friend, were nicely balanced. Ken Papenfus brought a rocky, devil-may-care edge to the part of Tristan, while the velvet-toned Cleveland Watkiss was confident and expressive as his friend Vasile.
The evening opened with Joseph, unaccompanied, improvising tense Wagnerian cadences, the trio building a slow-burning climax on “Faith” and an extended workout by the sextet on the overlapping riffs of “Doctone”. With jazz this strong, and fully integrated, and with Anderson as Isolde, the finished article looks promising.
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