SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

GORDON GETTY: Plump Jack (concert version) – Christopher Robertson, bass-baritone (Henry IV/Pistol) /Nikolai Schukoff, tenor (Hal) /Melody Moore, soprano (Boy/Clarence) /Nathaniel Webster, baritone (Bardolph/Chief Justice) /Lester Lynch, baritone (Falstaff) / Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks /Münchner Rundfunkorchester /Ulf Schirmer – PentaTone

There are very good things in this opera even if it doesn’t add up to a fully engaging experience.

Published on October 5, 2013

GORDON GETTY: Plump Jack (concert version) – Christopher Robertson, bass-baritone (Henry IV/Pistol) /Nikolai Schukoff, tenor (Hal) /Melody Moore, soprano (Boy/Clarence) /Nathaniel Webster, baritone (Bardolph/Chief Justice) /Lester Lynch, baritone (Falstaff) / Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks /Münchner Rundfunkorchester /Ulf Schirmer – PentaTone

GORDON GETTY: Plump Jack (concert version) – Christopher Robertson, bass-baritone (Henry IV/Pistol) /Nikolai Schukoff, tenor (Hal) /Melody Moore, soprano (Boy/Clarence) /Nathaniel Webster, baritone (Bardolph/Chief Justice) /Lester Lynch, baritone (Falstaff) / Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks /Münchner Rundfunkorchester /Ulf Schirmer – PentaTone multichannel SACD PTC 5186 445, 75:34 ***1/2:

If you’re unfamiliar with Gordon Getty and his music, the name may still ring a bell. Getty is the son of J. Paul Getty and thus heir to part at least of his father’s great wealth. He also runs the Getty Trust, which underwrites many important cultural and philanthropic endeavors, and is one of America’s leading venture capitalists. A busy man, one would think, but he happens also to be an accomplished composer. Like poet James Merrill (son of Charles Merrill, founder of Merrill Lynch), he may be rich but has demonstrable talent, too, at least based on the music in Plump Jack. As with Merrill, however, all that money must have helped Getty get a leg up in the art world.

While Getty has written in other forms, he naturally gravitates toward vocal music, having trained as an opera singer (though as far as I know he never took to the boards). In fact, Plump Jack is one of three vocal compositions of Getty recorded by PentaTone Classics. These include the cantata Joan and the Bells and the one-act opera Usher House. Wanting to do my homework for this assignment, I also listened to Usher House and have to say I didn’t enjoy the experience. A large part of the problem is that Getty himself fashioned the libretto, basing it very loosely on Edgar A. Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Getty turned Poe’s horror story-cum-psychological study—a veiled exploration of an incestuous relationship between doomed siblings—into a pure Hollywood-style horror tale complete with a zombie as villain. The music is actually more atmospheric than the libretto deserves, but the complete package is pretty hard to swallow. Getty is on more solid ground in Plump Jack, the libretto (again by Getty) adapted from the work of that noted wordsmith Will Shakespeare.

Getty sticks to the text, cherry-picking his scenes from Henry VI, Parts I and II, and Henry V. The Plump Jack of the title is, of course, Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, a character as large as his girth, though true to the action of Henry V, he dies before the end of the opera and doesn’t even have the lion’s share of the sung text. On the other hand, Prince Hal (later Henry V), the central figure in Shakespeare’s plays, hardly dominates the action either, and this can really be considered an ensemble opera.

Not coincidentally, then, the crowd scenes are some of the best things about the Plump Jack, mounted with skill that no mere weekend composer could muster. The writing for the voices is skillful as well although you’ll notice from the cast listing above that lower voices predominate, giving the score a decided tilt toward the dark hued that I think it doesn’t benefit from. As with Usher House, the orchestration is accomplished; the longish overture, brightened by military fanfares (apropos the Fat Knight and the warrior prince Henry) and English reels, is fairly attractive, setting the stage well—or it would do so if the music that followed were a bit lighter and brighter itself. I’d characterize Getty’s music as post-Romantic. If you’re familiar with the vocal music of Schreker, Korngold (in his darker moods), and d’Albert, you have a general idea of the style. The music is chromatic, with wisps of melody rather than full-blown tunes. There’s little lyricism here; some of the text is more spoken than sung.

I can’t say what impression the opera would make on the stage; as I mentioned, the crowd scenes are musically effective and would probably work well in the theater. And maybe—given the magic of lighting, sets, and costumes—some of the musical fog would lift in a staged performance. As it is, though there are very good things in the opera, it doesn’t add up to an entirely entertaining experience.

However, the performances are uniformly excellent. There doesn’t seem to be a weak link vocally. Lester Lynch’s Falstaff and especially Nikolai Schukoff’s Hal are both well sung and well acted. Christopher Robertson, in the meaty part of Henry IV, is a good actor as well and delivers the world-weary King Henry’s music affectingly. The orchestral support is strong and colorful, while the chorus brings verve to the aforementioned crowd scenes.

So, few complaints with and much praise for the performers. The engineers, too, do their work well. I would have liked a little more distance between me and the vocalists, but the orchestra is set in a natural perspective and registers with force. In sum, the story is a good one, and if Getty doesn’t tell it with unfailing musical justice, the music for the two Henrys, the crowd scenes, the writing for the orchestra are all worth experiencing.

—Lee Passarella




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