Depth and passion in Copland’s Dickinson settings

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Copland, Mozart, Britten, Rossini: Caryl Hughes (soprano), Harry Ogg (piano), St Andrew’s Church, Cheltenham, 2.4.2014. (RJ)

Aaron Copland: Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson
Mozart: Non so piu cosa son from The Marriage of Figaro
Britten: Tiny’s Aria for Paul Bunyan
Rossini: Non piu mesta from La Cenerentola


When English Touring Opera rolls into town, look out: you may be getting more than you bargained for. While the company’s main mission is to bring Tippett’s King Priam, Britten’s Paul Bunyan and Mozart’s The Magic Flute to all parts of England – plus Perth in Scotland – its artists are also involved in other pursuits. They are infiltrating schools with such delights as Borka, the Goose with no Feathers (an opera for children aged 3-7) and Rumbled (for children with learning difficulties). Last month they brought the First World War to Wolverhampton with Zeppelin Dreams (a community opera project involving 200 local people).

 In addition, two of the company’s singers are doing lunchtime recitals on the side, as it were, aided and abetted by ETO’s assistant conductor Harry Ogg. (I wonder if these activities should be termed noonlighting – as opposed to moonlighting!) During the tour mezzo soprano Clarissa Meek is performing Dominick Argento’s Purlitzer Prize winning song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf in selected towns and cities. Her colleague, Welsh soprano Caryl Hughes, is bringing Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson to the provinces, and it was Caryl whose voice I heard between her appearances as Tiny in Paul Bunyan and the boy Paris in King Priam.

 Emily Dickinson wrote some 1800 poems, the majority of which were unpublished at her death in 1886. and it was not until 1955 that a complete collection of the original poems appeared, though Copland composed his song cycle earlier than this, in 1949-50. He was clearly touched by the feelings of loneliness and vulnerability expressed in the poems; yet they are also infused with an independence of spirit.

 From the outset it was clear that the singer and pianist are equal prtners in these settings. In Nature, the gentlest mother the accompaniment expresses the sounds of nature – a squirrel, a bird, a cricket – and the song conveyed a sense of serenity and calm. But this was quickly overturned with There came a wind like a bugle with its dissonant, rumbling accompaniment in which you could feel the lightning flash. Caryl Hughes really got the feel of Dickinson’s character in Why did they shut me out of heaven? as she climaxed on a fortissimo A flat in the query “Did I sing too loud?” Calm returned in The world feels dusty with the rain offering temporary solace, but this which was quickly dissipated as the pains of love were revealed in Heart, we will forgive him.

 The mood changed to exuberance in Dear March, come in with its rapidity and constantly changing time signatures, but a mood of foreboding permeated Sleep is supposed to be with its challenging octave leaps and another fortissimo climax. There was more uncertainty and doubt as to whether spring would return in When they come back which was followed by a terrifying vision of death to the accompaniment of a grotesque funeral march (I felt a funeral in my brain). After these horrors the gentle hymn like tones of I’ve heard an organ talk hepled to calm or even lift the spirits.

 At this point a few people began to clap – out of relief, perhaps? But there was more to come: the bustling Going to Heaven with its sense of excitement in which Emily does not share. Is she sceptical about the whole concept of the after-life? One feels she is. But one cannot be sure for the final song The Chariot describes a ride with Death though different stages of life with the accompaniment providing the illusion of movement. Does this end of a note of stoicism? Perhaps, but uncertainties remain, and I for one doubt that Emily Dickinson was a happy soul.

This daytime recital was a perfection itself in which one could see the two musicians were fully engaged with the music. The Twelve Poems is not a particularly long work but it encompasses a huge emotional journey and makes considerable technical and emotional demands on the performers – and audience, too – who are never given a moment to relax. Mr Ogg is the kind of pianist – instinctive, supportive, almost invisible – that many singers would die for, while Miss Hughes has no problem in moving between the public realm of the opera house to the intimacy of a recital room.

 If further proof of her versatility was required the rest of the recital, devoted to opera, confirmed it. Mozart’s lively Non so piu cosa son suggested that she would be an ideal Cherubino while an aria from Paul Bunyan is which Tiny laments the tragic death of her mother demonstrated her waif-like qualities. Her mastery of bel canto was evident in a spectacular Non piu mesta showed her mastery of the art of bel canto, with Harry Ogg accomplishing wonders with the plethora of notes! 

 ETO will be calling at Leicester, Sheffield, York, Canterbury, Norwich, Crawley, Coventry, Exeter, Durham, Perth and Cambridge over the next two months. To get details of all the events they are organising in these areas look at

Roger Jones

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