James Rolfe – Breathe

Breathe - Front Cover_300This review first appeared in the print edition of Opera Canada.

This new CD of music by James Rolfe on the Centrediscs label contains three works for voices and a small “early instruments” ensemble. Two; Europa and Aeneas and Dido, were written as companion pieces for Toronto Masque Theatre performances of the similarly titled works by Pignolet de Montéclair and Purcell. The third, Breathe, was written for Trio Mediaeval and the Toronto Consort.

Breathe is a setting of words by Anna Chatterton and Hildegard of Bingen on the theme of the four elements. It feels quite meditative with high voices (Suzie LeBlanc, Katherine Hill and Laura Pudwell) weaving patterns with the band. It’s rhythmically inventive, almost jazzy in places but always quite ethereal.

Europa sets Steven Heighton’s text about the reencounter of Europa and her betrothed, Hiram, thirty years after her abduction by Zeus. The style is “baroque”. The singers; Suzie LeBlanc and Alexander Dobson, sing with minimal vibrato which fits with the instrumentation. This piece is more “driven”. The music propels the narrative forward relentlessly but it still has a yearning, romantic quality.

Both pieces are conducted by David Fallis with members of the Toronto Consort and were recorded recently at Revolution Recording. The sound is crisp, clear and entirely appropriate.

The longest piece on the disc, Aeneas and Dido, to text by André Alexis, deals mainly with Aeneas’ inner life and motivation; a theme that gets short thrift in Nathum Tate’s libretto for Purcell. At the heart of the piece is a sort of tragicomic dream interlude where Aeneas (Alexander Dobson) encounters Mercury (Teri Dunn) and a goat (Vicki St.Pierre) They bring him back to his sense of duty and destiny. This is flanked with slightly awkward conversation between Aeneas and Dido (Monica Whicher) about their feelings though Aeneas reverts to almost Virgil like bluff heroism in his final dismissal of the smoke from Dido’s pyre.

The major difference musically in this third piece is the use of a chorus that plays the classical role of commenting on the action while providing an extra dimension to the sound world. Aeneas and Dido is also musically more abrasive than the other two pieces though still largely tonal and quite accessible.

Larry Beckwith conducts a seven piece band and the singers in this recording made at the Glenn Gould Studio in 2009. Again, as always with GGS recordings, the sound is very clean and clear.

Full texts and much more are provided in the accompanying booklet.

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