A Brilliant, Touching Adaptation: John Joubert’s Opera Jane Eyre, Finally (and Finely) Performed and Recorded

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Composer John Joubert. Photo Graham Boulton.

Composer John Joubert. Photo Graham Boulton.

 

John Joubert, Jane Eyre (1987-97, revised 2016)
April Frederick – Jane Eyre
Mark Milhofer – St. John Rivers/Robert Mason
David Stout – Edward Rochester
Gwion Thomas – Brocklehurst

English Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Kenneth Woods
SOMM263 [2 CDs] 125 minutes (opera alone: 107 minutes)

In a separate article, I have discussed fifteen unusual operas that were released on CD this past year (many of them in their first recording ever). But I felt impelled to set aside for special discussion two operas that impressed me particularly: Bellini’s first opera, Adelson e Salvini (1824) and the opera discussed below: John Joubert’s adaptation of the beloved novel Jane Eyre.

I had never heard a note by John Joubert (1927- ) before. Critics have often praised his works for organ and for chorus. Several of his hymns and carols are widely known. Joubert, I have now learned, was born in South Africa but received his training in England and has made his long and continuing career there, mainly in Birmingham. (His last name comes from a French Huguenot ancestor.)

One thing I can say for sure, after hearing Jane Eyre: Joubert possesses a keen sense for character, situation, and dramatic arc. John Allison, in a review (in the Telegraph) of the concert performance preserved here, agrees: Joubert’s music in this opera “sometimes suggests what a less chilly-hearted Britten might have sounded like. A natural opera composer, Joubert writes for a busy orchestra that drives the action along and illuminates it, without overwhelming the singers.” Joubert’s musico-dramatic insights are evident in his booklet-essay and in the 17-minute interview that ends the second CD.

Joubert has written four short operas, plus three full-length ones. The other two full ones are Silas Marner (1961, after the George Eliot novel) and Under Western Eyes (1968, after the Joseph Conrad novel). Jane Eyre was composed and revised over the years 1987-97. Joubert willingly cut 45 minutes out of it in preparation for the world-premiere performance recorded here; he considers this the definitive version. (The five orchestral interludes that he removed became the main material for his Symphony No. 3.)

The result is a taut work, to a libretto savvily carved by Kenneth Birkin out of the beloved Charlotte Brontë novel, as the soprano who sings the title role has explained in a video interview. Some earlier or omitted episodes from the novel are referred to briefly in passages of soliloquy or in discussions between the characters. (Birkin is the author of two highly regarded books from Cambridge University Press: one on Richard Strauss’s opera Arabella, the other on the great conductor Hans von Bülow.)

The opera’s plot omits Jane’s painful childhood, beginning instead at the point where she is leaving her teaching position at Lowood school to become governess at the Thornfield Hall estate. Scene 2 jumps to the moment where Jane saves Lord Rochester from burning to death. In scene 3, Jane and Rochester confess their love. Scene 4, in the local church, consists of their wedding ceremony, which is interrupted by the revelation that Rochester has a previous wife: Bertha Mason, a madwoman, whom Rochester has long confined to the attic. Scene 5 shows us Jane at Reverend St. John Rivers’s home, resisting his urgent pleas to become his wife and travel with him to India. Scene 6 presents Rochester alone in a moving soliloquy, then rejoined by Jane, who learns that Bertha has recently died (in another blaze of her own setting; this time Rochester was maimed and blinded trying to save her). The opera ends with Jane and Rochester expressing their mutual devotion, tinged with sorrowful understanding of the travails that each has undergone. (Readers interested in further discussion of the relationship between the novel and the opera are urged to read Claire Seymour’s enthusiastic and insightful review of this same recording, at OperaToday.com.)

Joubert’s style here is accessible and largely tonal: similar in some ways to that of Britten’s Peter Grimes or Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. Another critic (Andrew Clement) plausibly compared the work’s style and approach to Debussy’s Pelléas and the operas of Janáček. The vocal lines, at least in this well-miked concert performance before an enthusiastic audience, come through clearly, as does the extensive orchestral commentary. I hardly needed to look at the libretto. Joubert has cannily used a smallish orchestra: 35 players, including one each of the usual woodwinds and brass. (The chamber forces can be seen rehearsing, in this short video.) The woodwind players all double on a second instrument (e.g., clarinetist on bass clarinet). This allows for coloristic combinations, e.g., flute and English horn. There are also numerous recurring themes that get transformed for dramatic and musico-structural purposes, as the conductor, Kenneth Wood, explains in a rich booklet-essay.

The single most powerful scene is, almost inevitably, the interrupted wedding. But I can imagine Scene 3—the avowal-of-love scene—being performed separately in concert, since it involves only two singers and has a nice shape on its own, with the characters ending in a mood of bliss that is gently questioned by the insightful orchestra.

My one objection to the opera is that, very often, a character’s vocal phrase is repeated immediately after by instruments in the orchestra. The scoring of each “echo” (solo horn, full string section, etc.) varies according to the situation, and the echo itself is often interestingly elaborated in ways that reveal the given character’s feelings. Still, the basic pattern of vocal statement, then instrumental mirroring, becomes distractingly predictable at times.

The vocalists are all more than capable. The role of the sneering Brocklehurst (director of Lowood school) could have used a singer with a fuller sound to his low notes. The Jane is superb, her voice pure and shimmering except for a bit of wobble on some high, intense notes. (If I were in Jane’s shoes, I would wobble, too!) The Rochester is first-rate. Reverend Rivers, the main tenor role, is vividly sung, in a scene that gives the work its only glints of (harsh) humor.

On this recording, the tenor who sings the reverend also sings the smaller role of Richard Mason (Bertha’s brother), and no less vividly. The smaller roles are well handled, including the reverend’s sisters Diana and Mary, all aflutter at his plan to leave them and earn his “glorious future in Heaven” by bringing “the Word of the Lord” to the heathen in India.

The orchestra is splendid throughout, as in the opera’s brief prelude. (We can, under the circumstances of a live recording of a single performance, easily excuse an occasional moment of sour tuning in the winds.) I had not realized until now that there is an English Symphony Orchestra, based in Birmingham. The ESO is an expanded version of the well-known English String Orchestra, which was founded in 1978 and has made many recordings under William Boughton. The two orchestras now co-exist and share many players. (The ESO has recently released recordings of music by Elgar—orchestrated by Donald Fraser—and by Ernst Křenek.)

I hope Joubert’s Jane Eyre gets snapped up by major opera houses and summer festivals—or indeed performed “in concert,” as on this recording. The whole recording has been made available on YouTube, carved up into shortish units, thus making it easy for curious listeners to get to know.

I wonder: when might we be able to hear and assess Joubert’s six other operas?

And I also wonder: what wonderful surprises may 2018 hold in store for lovers of unusual recorded opera?

The present article first appeared, in slightly different form, in American Record Guide and then, online, as the third and final section of an extended article in Boston Musical Intelligencer. It appears here by kind permission of ARG and BMInt.

About the author

Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015), his most recent (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book). His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaToday and MusicologyNow. His previous pieces for New York Arts were on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëll, a major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

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