United Kingdom John Joubert, Jane Eyre (a concert performance of John Joubert’s opera after the novel of Charlotte Brontë to the libretto of Kenneth Birkin): Soloists, English Symphony Orchestra / Kenneth Woods (conductor), The Ruddock Performing Arts Centre, Birmingham, 25.10.2016. (GR)
Jane Eyre: April Fredrick
Edward Rochester: David Stou
Mrs. Fairfax: Clare McCaldin (doubling as Hannah, the Rivers’ housekeeper)
Rev. St. John Rivers: Mark Milhofer (doubling as Richard Mason, Rochester’s brother-in-law)
Mr. Brocklehurst: Gwion Thomas
Diana Rivers: Lesley-Jane Rogers
Mary Rivers: Lorraine Payne
The Rev. Wood: Alan Fairs
Rector’s Clerk: Joseph Bolger
John, manservant at Thornfield: Samuel Oram
Verger of Thornfield: Felix Kemp
Briggs, Mason’s Solicitor: Andrew Mayor
The checkered history of John Joubert’s opera Jane Eyre continues. After its first outing in an adapted version from Opera Mint at the CBSO Centre in 2005, what was billed as its ‘world première’ took place in concert form at the Ruddock Performing Arts Centre on Oct 25th 2016. This was my first visit to the Ruddock Hall, opened in 2012, with its impeccable acoustics, it is a truly magnificent venue, befitting of such an auspicious occasion. But is a ‘concert performance’ an adequate format for such an eventful and psychological drama as Joubert has scored for the Charlotte Brontë classic?
Jane Eyre is the third major opera of Joubert to be based on an icon of the English literature novel – Silas Marner (George Eliot) and Under Western Eyes (Joseph Conrad) being the others. As the adopted Brummie composer explains, “The criterion I use for the selection of operatic subjects is that they should comment in some way on basic human issues, thus bringing them into line with the Enlightenment idea of theatre as a ‘School of Morals’.” Such a masterpiece as Jane Eyre is thus an excellent choice and while Joubert’s music does justice to the original book and his mantra, so much more ‘theatre’ can be achieved with a stage setting, however basic.
I believe the decision of Joubert and librettist Kenneth Birkin to concentrate on the adult life of Jane was the right one, as was their choice to extend the eponymous heroine’s association with the Rev. St. John Rivers. Joubert has spent over twenty years composing and revisiting his Jane Eyre. This latest revision was recorded ‘live’ at the Ruddock and will be issued on the Somm label next March, coinciding with the composer’s 90th birthday. Judging by Joubert’s previous liaisons with Somm it will be one for both collectors and fans alike. The opera is now divided into two acts, each of three scenes, as was detailed in the programme synopsis. On the whole the diction of the singers was satisfactory and the plot could be easily followed, although I wondered whether there were certain anomalies between character listings, synopsis and platform delivery.
Highlights of Joubert’s score for me included the two interludes that separate the three scenes of Act I. Written in Brittenesque manner. The first was suggestive at times of the role of Grace Poole (not an included character) and the strange noises coming from the top floor of Thornfield Hall; the second, after the fire, provided the perfect transition between speculation as to the destinies of Jane and Mr Rochester, and the forthcoming events in the garden. Indeed, as the attraction between the two main characters blossoms, the tension in the music gives way to a sumptuous obligatory love duet – simple, transparent and highly effective.
Joubert uses his instruments intelligently too, with many examples in Act I: the shimmering strings that introduce the autumn evening in the school refractory; the salvo of brass and woodwind as Jane turns her back on Lowood; the xylophone that signals the first sparks of the fire; the impressive drum volley that mirrors the frowning frustration in the mind of Rochester; the scoring for flute that sets the romantic mood to come in the garden, confirmed by the horn. There were motifs too, which hopefully will become clear upon listening to the eagerly awaited CD. Act II also had its musical apogees: the flute and organ base notes to announce the forthcoming nuptials; the soulful horn and cellos as the heartbroken Jane crept away from the wedding ceremony; the triumphant chords that accompanied Jane’s positive exit from the Rivers’ household; the poignant violin solo from Sarah Sew that brought the drama to a serene close. All in all, I found Joubert’s music in harmony with the libretto, in turn both taut and cosy, but always easy on the ear. Kenneth Woods kept a tight rein on proceedings and his English Symphony Orchestra (based in Worcestershire) acquitted themselves well, albeit a little overpowering at times, particularly when events take a turn for the worse at the altar.
This was a marathon for April Fredrick, the soprano who took the role of Jane, but she finished as strongly as she started. It was her show on the platform and rightly so: not only vocally, but visually too, how you might imagine Brontë’s heroine to be, she was an ideal Jane (but far from Brontë’s ‘plain’ Jane). In the first scene Fredrick exhibited excellent tenacity in the face of the pleas of Mr. Brocklehurst for her to remain at Lowood, typified by her repeated ‘Farewell’. In contrast her handling of the situation as the chemistry between her and Rochester begins to simmer, after the first arson attempt, was touching. These are her strengths, essential in an opera singer – characterization abilities allied to a solid register. My only criticism was that in the middle of a crucial exchange there was a tendency to go back to the score in front of her, breaking the moment somewhat. Baritone David Stout playing Edward Rochester, captured a man with all the cares of the world on his shoulders (which he had of course) but I still thought there might have been a bit more animation. Such abilities were in abundance with tenor Mark Milhofer whose principal role was as the Rev. St. John Rivers, the material of Joubert and Birkin allowing him to portray a ‘fire and brimstone’ of a preacher. When Rivers implores Jane to come to India with him, Jane clearly wrestles with her response and hears the haunting cries of Rochester ‘Jane! Jane! Jane!’ Milhofer and Fredrick together with Joubert’s dynamic orchestration produced the finest scene of the evening – the emotional climax of the opera – a moment that I thought illustrated the composer’s Wagnerian influence. Milhofer was equally effective in his second role, the vindictive Richard Mason, Rochester’s brother-in-law, intent upon presenting some ‘just cause and impediment’.
If it were possible to combine the 2005 staging of Opera Mint – the locations suggested by its back-projections and the dancer who portrayed the alter ego of Jane – with the professional vocalists and ESO instrumentalists under Woods, then Joubert’s Jane Eyre would surely be something to shout about. Unfortunately, funding issues once again dominate. The four hundred or so strong audience showed their respect and enthusiasm for the composer in his ninetieth year, giving him a deserved standing ovation at the close.