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Elizabeth Maconchy: The Sofa; The Departure
23 Aug 2009

Maconchy: The Sofa & The Departure

The two one-act operas - operettes? - on this disc play something like mediocre episodes of The Twilight Zone set to music, though without the quirky memorability of that show's opening theme.

Elizabeth Maconchy: The Sofa; The Departure

Independent Opera

Chandos CD CHAN 10508

$18.99  Click to buy

Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) comes across here as a well-trained, skillful composer of music in the approved idiom of mid/late 20th century academic composition. She employs tonality ironically, for fractured waltzes, eerie lullabies and overripe romanticism. Around that music she weaves the familiar textures of twittering winds, cacophonous percussion outbursts, and scratchy strings.

The Sofa, Ursula Vaughan Williams’s adaptation of Le Sofa by Crébillion Fils, gives Maconchy the opportunity to compose arias, with several set pieces. Maconchy seems to want these sections to have inverted commas around them - “Here is your ‘aria’ for you.” But that is not inappropriate for the shallow, even dismal characters of this story. Prince Dominic, a “Duke of Mantua” wannabe, seduces women at his parties, frequently on the title furniture. His grandmother casts a spell on him, turning him into the sofa. He can only be brought back to human shape by having a couple make love on top of him (unknowingly, of course). This couple turns out to be the prince’s steady ladyfriend and an acquaintance. The prince returns to human form in outrage, and then realizes he needs to make a commitment to Monique to be happy. Operette and sermon over.

At about 40 minutes, this trifle could well make for an entertaining show, but the score doesn’t repay repeated listenings. The sour, acerbic setting makes its points early, and then often. Dominic Wheeler conducts the musicians of Independent Opera at Sadler’s Well, surely doing as creditable a job with the music as any other group, who cared to make the effort, would. Nicholas Sharratt as the Prince and Sarah Tynan as Monique, the girlfriend, sing with apparent ease music that may well be more difficult than it sounds.

The Departure is even briefer, at 31 minutes, but it feels longer. This precursor to the film The Sixth Sense has a woman wake to find herself both inside and outside of her surroundings - and as she sings with her husband, she realizes that she is dead and slowly leaving the mortal world. Librettist Anne Ridler doesn’t deepen her characterizations of husband and wife to develop some real interest in their predicament, and when the wife finally drifts off to her reward, we have ours as well. It’s over. At least one section for the husband finds Maconchy in imaginative mode, contrasting sweeter music for an ideal memory of past love with the sharper-edged tones depicting the weird circumstances. The rest of the score is predictable in its effects. Louise Poole as Julia the wife and Håkan Vramsmo as Mark the husband do sing attractively.

So two fairly dry pieces, of most interest to fans of mid-century British music or contemporary opera. As these two short pieces are unlikely to be staged, Chandos deserves commendation for preserving these performances.

Chris Mullins

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