Philip Glass And Robert Moran’s Juniper Tree Opera

imageAnyone who has visited the KInrowan Estate library knows that I’m always playing something for music here unless the Neverending Session is visiting us to grace us with their lovely music. And of course, I love good design that catches my eye, be it a really cool book cover or even properly done CD packaging. More on that aspect of this CD later, but first a few words on the music itself.

Philip Glass, one of my favourite composers, and his fellow composer Robert Moran, whom I had not encountered before, collaborated magnificently in equal measure on the composition of The Juniper Tree. Each Glass scene is followed by a Moran scene, with transitions composed by each. The result works a lot better than I expected, though the styles of each composer are quite different and neither surrenders anything of his own identity. If you like Glass, you’ll want to hear this opera.

The Juniper Tree is one of the more famous Grimm tales (not fairy tale, as some reviewers have called it, as it’s magic realism), telling of a really wicked stepmother who murders her stepson and serves him up in a stew to his unsuspecting father. (Proving how bloody stupid husbands can be around second wives.) The boy’s sister buries her brother’s bloody, butchered bones under a juniper tree, and the brother returns as a singing bird who wreaks vengeance on the evil stepmother before being restored to life in the bosom of his family after the evil one meets a particularly gruesome fate.

It is an English language opera in two acts and is scored for two baritones, bass, mezzo-soprano, four sopranos, tenor, mixed chorus, children’s voices and chamber orchestra. I listened to it once while working in the Library and once on a long walk with an iPod using ear buds. For getting the full impact of this opera, I recommend the latter as a listening method, as it’s a wickedly awesome experience!

It was premiered on December 11, 1985, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which had commissioned it. Sources note that Glass retained ownership of the opera and did not allow for the live recording of the premiere to be released until 2009. (That is the version reviewed here.) So Moran encouraged his fans to distribute bootleg copies so that people could hear it. I had not located one of those bootlegs anywhere, so I was delighted to see it released and sent here for review.

OK, it’s a lovely opera. And it’s a great CD package as well. Indeed it’s  a great design! Think the illustrators Arthur Rackham and Christina Rosetti as obvious influences for the art, which is by Lissa Sigillo. She has also done art on at least two other Glass endeavours, Orion and The Witches of Venice. The illustration of the album cover in this review shows the amazingly gothic design that’s found throughout the liner notes and indeed is even on the CD itself. What a bloody good cover it’d make for a book of the stories of the Brothers Grimm.

(Orange Mountain Music, 1999) Jayne West, soprano; Sanford Sylvan, baritone; Lynn Torgove, soprano; Valerie Walters, mezzo-soprano; Janet Brown, soprano; David Stoneman, baritone; Thomas Derrah, tenor; William Cotten, tenor; Chorus; Juniper Tree Orchestra, Richard Pittmann, cond.

About Iain Nicholas Mackenzie

I’m the Librarian for the Kinrowan Estate. I do love fresh brewed teas, curling, English mysteries and will often be playing Scandinavian or Celtic  music here in the Library.

I’m a violinist too, so you’ll me playing in various contradance band such as Chasing Fireflies and Mouse in the Cupboard as well as backing my wife Catherine up on yearly Christmas season tours in the Nordic countries.