Composer Mark Adamo is best known for his work as an opera composer, and by the release date of Naxos' Mark Adamo: Late Victorians, he has composed two of them: Little Women (1998) and Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess (2005). Operas take a long time to compose and are expensive to record well, and when you devote a lot of time to a single, focused work it can be hard to accumulate the little things you need in order to produce a single CD that affords listeners a sample of what you can do. The title work, Late Victorians (1994, but heard in a revised version), is one of those comparatively little things, a symphonic cantata with a text cobbled together from an essay included in Richard Rodriguez's Pulitzer Prize-nominated book Days of Obligation -- a book where Rodriguez controversially came out as gay -- and select poems of Emily Dickinson. The Rodriguez text concerns late Victorian houses in San Francisco, lately rehabbed, but then left vacant as their owners struggled and died with the AIDS virus. Unable to set the long, fully narrative Rodriguez text, Adamo decided to assign some passages from it to a narrator; here read by actor/author Andrew Sullivan, and to alternate them with Dickinson's poems as sung by a soprano, that part taken here by Emily Pulley. Although it deals with AIDS, Late Victorians is neither anguished nor angry; it is quite low key and requires some amount of patience owing to the lengthy cadenzas awarded to solo instruments in the orchestra. Late Victorians is certainly not a typical cantata as the presence of words is not continuous and the dialogue-like exchange between the speaker and singer is highly unconventional. When the soprano first comes in, you almost want to laugh, but ultimately it sounds natural and you grow used to it. The total output of the music and words, however, is very effective: this piece captures the feeling of empty ambiguity analogous to a scenario such as "I had a friend, and he died. I didn't find out about it until 18 months later...." This is a condition not imposed by the disease, but arises as an external circumstance of it. This has affected countless survivors of AIDS victims whether gay or straight, and Adamo has found the right voice for the situation in Late Victorians.
Apart from Regina Coeli, a single movement from Adamo's Concerto for harp and orchestra featuring soloist Dotian Levalier (2006), the rest of the music consists of "bleeding chunks" from Adamo's operas; the Overture to Lysistrata and a concert suite drawn in 2007 from Little Women entitled Alcott Music. It is in the latter that one can most readily understand what is so immediate and likable about Adamo's operatic work; it captures the nineteenth-century milieu of Louisa May Alcott without the built-in sentimentality associated with the era and is stated in a completely contemporary neo-Romantic idiom. Regina Coeli -- and presumably the concerto to which it is related -- seems like a nice addition to the all too slim repertoire of concertos for the harp; however, it isn't as strong as the other instrumental music here, being a little reminiscent of Ned Rorem's concerted works, though it is admittedly more studiously wrought and tasteful than Rorem typically is outside of his song literature and piano music.
Sylvia Alimena and the Eclipse Chamber Orchestra plays Adamo's music with considerable warmth and the right interpretive idiom; they sound much more confident and assured on Late Victorians than they do on their recording of overtures of Florian Leopold Gassmann, issued by Naxos in the same calendar month. Since serious awareness of gay classical composers began to be recognized in the 1990s, a sort of potted and slightly condescending patina of preconceived notions has grown up around what a gay composer does and is. Such notions include a tendency toward unfashionably tonal and neo-Romantic harmonic language, a preference toward vocal music or music written for the stage and a seeming over-concern for issues impacting the gay community, including AIDS; though on the other hand, one wonders how you would be expected to ignore it? Adamo's Late Victorians isn't likely to dispel such preconceived notions, but for music that can be placed roughly within those parameters this is certainly top drawer and deserves a wider hearing well beyond the confines of the gay community.