Kenneth Jean

Justin Dello Joio: Blue Mountain

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Justin Dello Joio's chamber opera Blue Mountain is a fictionalized account of a meeting between Edvard Grieg and Percy Grainger just at the end of Grieg's life. The libretto, by Andrew Boyle, adapted from his own play, is so brief and compressed that it barely leaves space for the characters to come across as believable, but the score is successful in creating empathy with them and bringing them to life. Dello Joio's musical language is not tonal, but has elements of tonality, and is craggily lyrical. The piece was written for Det Norske Blaseensemble in 2007, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Grieg's death. It's accompanied by wind ensemble, making it one of a very small group of operas that includes Kurka's Good Soldier Schweik and Daron Hagen's Bandanna. Dello Joio does add a harp, solo violin, and string bass, which soften the textures, and go a long way toward creating the illusion of a more conventional orchestration. The colorful, atmospheric, delicate orchestration, which includes the extensive use of percussion, is one of the work's greatest strengths. The opera is not overtly melodic, but the expressive music effectively communicates Grieg's fear of death and his grief over the loss of his infant daughter. The recording is splendid in both its instrumental and vocal performances. Kenneth Jean leads Det Norske Blaseensemble in a vivid and urgent reading of the score. All the singers are Norwegian, but their English is faultless and utterly convincing. Bass Njål Sparbo, as Grieg, sings with strength and solidity, and makes a human and sympathetic protagonist. As the composer's wife, mezzo-soprano Marianne Andersen has a voice and presence with a warmth, radiance, and intensity that recall Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, very high praise, indeed. Tenor Nils Harald Sødal brings a ringing tone and youthfulness to Grainger. Baritone Torben Grue makes the most he can of the dramatically and musically ambiguous role of the doctor. Bridge's sound is clean and clear, with a nice dramatic ambience. Blue Mountain effectively avoids the polarizing tendencies that afflict many new operas -- either shallow neo-lyricism or extreme abstraction and complexity -- and should be of interest to fans of contemporary opera.

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