Jonathan Dove: Siren Song

Brad Cooper, Amaryllis Dieltiens, Siren Ensemble/Henk Guittart (Chandos 10472)

5 June 2008 4 stars

Siren SongJonathan Dove's chamber opera Siren Song is a tightly constructed, gently inventive one-acter about a naïve young sailor who is tricked into financial ruin after falling in love with the fictitious Diana (or with the idea of Diana), whom he comes into contact with via a lonely-hearts ad. The opera is based on the novel of the same nameby Gordon Honeycombe that gave a précis of the actual events that unfolded when a love starved sailor became entangled in a affair of letters with a person he was under the impression was a similarly besotted young woman. Despite never speaking to his beloved, nor even seeing a photo of her (though he did believe she was a model – how nice for him), this young man saw fit to open a joint bank account in both their names, into which he deposited about £18,000. The young lady, of course, turned out to be a deceitful and callous man (calling himself Jonathan, real name Brian Trevis). Trevis had posed as Diana's brother, and had entertained the sailor (Davey Palmer) with letters and promises that apparently originated from his sham sister. Poor Davey then became embroiled in a mistaken-for-gay Navy enquiry (homosexuality was, shockingly and shamefully, illegal in the British armed forces until January 2000), before a tragic denouement where the scam was uncovered, and Jonathan imprisoned.    

Siren SongQuite clearly the two works of fiction selected only certain details of the affair, so harsh judgements shouldn't be directed towards the sailor – good reason for his actions had he, I'm sure. We are still left with a large problem in the narrative of the opera though; just how credulous can your protagonist be before the audience loses all interest in him? Whatever the answer to that question is, it is clear that other details – of design, of pacing, and of music- can always qualify and enrich a work. And so it is in Dove's wonderful opera, where we are made to feel real sympathy and ultimately profound pity for the witless Davey. The dramatic and the musical nous of the work is such that over the course of its condensed and skilfully-paced 75 minute arc the tone moves from farce to tragedy without once suggesting emotional elision. The libretto is as instrumental as the music in this. It is funny in the early stages (for example: to the strains of the Star Spangled Banner, Jonathan states about Comet that 'It's a palace of technology. A woman's dream come true!' or after Davey wonders what trinkets to buy Diana, Jonathan asks 'Thought about a microwave?!'), refreshingly fruity and lurid when it needs to be (there are numerous fucks, and one reference to slipping something private into someone's mouth), and finally elegiac.

Such an impression of dramatic unity through contrast relies heavily on the performers of course. The new release of Siren Song, recorded live at last year's Grachtenfestival with the Siren Ensemble directed by Henk Guittart accompanying the small but generally excellent cast led by Brad Cooper as the sailor, manages to communicate this shift in tone with a graceful and impressive fluidity. Dove's evocative and allusive score is always well-played by the ensemble of ten players, and their leader is adroit at finding just the right energy and dynamic that both supports the singers, and suggests an emotional current outside their sphere of action. Britten's Turn of the Screw was obviously an inspiration to Dove, both in terms of instrumentation and musical language (much of Siren Song centres around modal and enriched-tonal lines and harmonies). John Adams' repetitive but supple and pathos-fuelled post-minimal writing in operas like Nixon in China also echoes quite heavily in the score (the arioso singing lines share much with those of Nixon). Dove, though, has his own gift for the employment of colour and style as signs of emotion, and he uses it here to great effect. The quasi-gamelan or Beijing Opera-like doubling of slow moving voice with high flute in the 11th scene (there are 17 scenes in total) in Singapore, for example, is a good case in point of the kind of places the score ventures, without ever losing its essentially post-minimal feel. The players meet this eclecticism with some of their own; the opening and closing music is as dreamy and elegiac as the drama demands, and the consistent returns of the Diana motif are always knitted into the context of whatever the events on stage demand.

The singers uphold the high standards of the instrumentalists. They inhabit their roles convincingly, with Cooper's lyric tenor voice always at the centre of the emotional journey of the opera. He persuasively manages to find the right appearance of youth and vulnerability in the early stages, with a naïve presence and meek practice of phrasing well suited to his role. He produces an affecting and precise tone across the middle register, and projects powerfully and pleadingly at the top of his range in his final, angry scenes. Amaryllis Dieltiens' Diana (she and Davey actually sing their love letters to each other, thus cleverly giving her a real presence in the work and thereby increasing the poignancy of the piece) is suitably wispy in her intentionally clunky and callow dialogue ('I like chocolate. I like shopping') in the courting scenes near the start. She is, meanwhile, evanescent in her siren, wordless responses to Davey's pleas at the end. Mattijs van de Woerd as Jonathan delights in the humour and underhandedness of his character, and though his projection and indeed his diction can be a little shaky at times, his baritone is nevertheless a generally rich and flexible instrument. The fact that this is a live recording means the levels of instruments and voices are not always in correct relations (the instruments can sometimes appear too meek, too distant), but the palpable urgency that derives from the status of the recording more than makes up for this. This release presents an involving and affecting contemporary opera, performed with great integrity and skill.  

By Stephen Graham