CIPULLO After Life. LAITMAN In Sleep The World Is Yours Stilian Kirov, cond; Ava Pine, Megan Chenovick (sop); Catherine Cook (mez); Robert Orth (bar); Zart Dombourian-Eby (fl); Benjamin Hausmann (ob); Laura DeLuca (cl); Mikhail Shmidt (vn); Walter Gray (vc); Craig Sheppard, Mina Miller (pn) NAXOS 8.669036 (66:55)
The short opera by Tom Cipullo (b. 1956) After Life considers how Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso might have reacted if they met in the present day. (There are parallels in their lives and points of contact, as both were pulled by Paris in the early 20th century; Stein was a champion of Picasso artistically but the two parted company politically.) From this, it is clear that the composer’s own comment on his piece is what is to be expected, that After Life is an opera “more concerned with raising questions than with answering them.” How do people of such standing react during a Nazi occupation, for example? At one point, Cipullo quotes from Menotti’s The Medium, a nice touch given the nature of the work’s premise.
The opera begins in darkness and has the indication “a sound of no knowable place.” In that darkness, we hear Stein (mezzo Catherine Cook) finding her way to words themselves before she asks to be “conjured” (invoked, one assumes). Cipullo’s musical language is perfect for this, cogent harmonically and melodically. Cook has a strong voice, and her diction is perfect. The voice of Picasso is initially all she can hear; she cannot see him, but somehow they find each other. Robert Orth is the superb baritone that takes the role. David Mason’s equally superb libretto leads us through this meeting of these two great people. Both Cook and Orth have big enough voices to project these two huge personalities. The score holds dance rhythms, but also infinite tenderness (“I grew to hate you,” says Picasso, poignantly). There is much to fascinate in the instrumental parts, and the virtuosity of the instrumental ensemble Music of Remembrance (which commissioned the opera) is immense. The lighter, sprightly writing perhaps reflects Mason’s designation of After Life as a “tragicomedy.” Using a small chamber ensemble, Cipullo displays a deft hand for scoring; and it is often the instrumental group that carries the emotional burden. Listen to the flute and piano exchanges at Picasso’s “I resisted in my art” (track 4) for an example of how tight the ensemble is here.
It is only in the latter stages of the piece, around the last quarter of an hour, that the “Girl” arrives, her part taken with miraculous vocal warmth by Ava Pine. The scenario is massively tender: The Girl sold Stein a rose near the village of Izieu. When pressed, the Girl refuses to tell her name: “No-one remembers my name. I don’t remember myself”; then comes the Girl’s knock-out emotional question—“Why did I die?”—set with great tenderness by Cipullo. Here’s a composer who realizes that less is more, so that the first moment when we hear all three voices together is massively effective and heart-rending. (Picasso and Gertrude’s duet, “We tried to resist,” leads to a climactic line, “Life! After life. Art is for life!,” over which the Girl sings the simple but powerful statement, “You were saved,” before she sings, alone, “And I died.”) It is the Girl then, that comes into her own, narrating her own story, the tale of her own death, of working in the camp, of her memories, of the orphanage in which she died. Pine can float notes at the top of her register beautifully, but she has the range to hit the lowest notes (“Then I was gone”). It is the Girl that has the last word, itself a sequence of questions—“Did I once have a name? Who was it that fathered me?”—and so on, set against the tenderest of instrumental backgrounds. A powerful piece indeed.
The vocal writing is remarkably assured throughout, perhaps unsurprising as Cipullo has penned well over 200 songs so far. While Cipullo was new to me, Lori Laitman is a familiar name (check the Fanfare Archive for my various reviews of her work). At the time of writing, Laitman’s most recent premiere appears to be her opera The Scarlet Letter. Her 2013 piece In Sleep The World Is Yours sets poetry by Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (1924–1942). Meerbaum-Eisinger perished in the Michalowska labor camp in Ukraine, but her poetry survived and was published in 2008 in Harvest of Blossoms: Poems of a life cut short. Laitman’s piece received its premiere at the Music of Remembrance’s Holocaust Remembrance concert in Seattle in May 2014. Laitman chose three poems and set them for soprano, oboe, and piano. The first, “Lullaby,” holds a bittersweet element in that it was dreams that held the only available escape for some in those days. “For you the day is dark, Bright is the night when a dream cuddles you” sums it up perfectly, and Laitman’s writing reflects this unease within what is traditionally a form that provides a feeling of safety. The active beginning to “Yes,” the second poem to be set, reflects feelings of distance between loved ones; the music softens as the realization that it is memories that hold the key to closeness sinks in. The writing for oboe here seems particularly poignant, adding its own florid commentary. Finally, there comes “Tragedy.” The words are heartbreaking, and worth quoting in full: “This is the hardest: to give yourself away / and then to see that no-one needs you, to give all of yourself and realize / you’ll fade like smoke and leave no trace.” The singer initially can hardly get past the first word, “This”; and here, the piano and oboe parts are at their most fragmentary. It is telling that his poem has the least text of all three poems, but Laitman accords it the longest setting. Megan Chenovick, superb throughout, really allows her voice to soar in this final offering, while Benjamin Hausmann’s poignant pipings add an extra layer of regret for what might have been for this talented young poet whose voice was cruelly ended at far too early an age.
A most stimulating release, then. The two pieces are excellently matched. Both exude a sense of questioning what was and what might have been. Performances and recording are of the highest standard. Recommended. - Colin Clarke