All things Brit and beautiful
“Time and tide wait for no one” pontificates Myrtle the barmaid, setting the tone for André Previn’s opera about fleeting romance but enduring love: Brief Encounter. Loosely based on the play Still Life by Noël Coward and the screenplay for the film Brief Encounter by Coward and David Lean, this opera (now on CD) tells a similar story to all of its operatic predecessors: longing, love and loss.
Beginning with a momentary encounter in an English train station bar, the housewife Laura Jesson (Elizabeth Futral) meets the sympathetic doctor Alec Harvey (Nathan Gunn) as he wipes a piece of grit from her eye. The grit becomes the first seed of future unintentional encounters, a seed that later blooms into a thorny romance. The guilt that Laura feels from cheating on her husband Fred is great—but she continues to seek more from the man who changed her “ordinary Thursdays” into a short-lived life of marital deception and self doubt.
Seeing each other for champagne lunches, assignations in unoccupied flats, and most often, on the bridge overlooking the flowing river at Eden Lock changed Laura forever. The storm ends with Alec’s departure to South Africa to continue his life calling of helping those in need. “Forgive me for meeting you” he will ask, “for taking the piece of grit from your eye.” While Laura returns to her steadfast Fred, neither Laura nor Alec will forget the fleeting moments of rapture they experienced: “I want to be remembered… to the end of my days.”
Although the listening experience was pleasurable, I doubt Brief Encounter will be remembered “to the end of my days.” Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, the work had its world premier on May 1, 2009. Recorded that same month, this live Deutsche Grammophon recording retains impressive quality of Prévin’s orchestrations and Futral’s and Gunn’s moving performances.
Moreover, librettist John Caird’s storytelling transports the listener into the drama of the tumultuous relationship. Under the direction of Patrick Summers, the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra easily conveys the emotions inherent in Prévin’s score—longing, love, suspense, loss. More impressively, Prévin is able to transport us from train station, restaurant, and flowing river, with his telling undertones.
Where Prévin’s score lacks staying power is in the awkward scoring of Caird’s dialogues and conversations. While Laura’s and Alec’s monologues are richly scored with beautiful moments of lyricism, the dialogue is often stilted and awkward, leaving the listener either unaffected by the weight of Caird’s words or questioning the appropriateness of Prévin’s scoring.
Particularly troublesome were the dialogues between the barmaid Myrtle (Meredith Arwady) and her lover Albert (Robert Orth). Additionally, moments of raw emotion could have been much better conveyed through a breathless word or two, a strategy that was only used in Act II by an insignificant character, Beryl (Alicia Gianni).
While Futral and Gunn both shone in their depiction of the adulterous lovers, this was surely Futral’s opera. Her character, Laura, had the weight of stage time, arias, and dialogue, interacting with Alec, her husband Fred, friends, the audience and herself on the emotional rollercoaster of her affair with Alec. Futral beautifully encompassed the moments of excitement, lust and longing that Laura experiences, all the while skillfully portraying the turmoil of self-doubt and loathing caused by the relationship. Prévin wrote some notable arias for this character, with highlights including “Fred-Fred-dear Fred,” “This pain can’t last,” and “This is a face of a woman who lies.”
Nathan Gunn’s manly prowess echoed throughout his performance of the doctor Alec that easily persuaded Laura into the affair against all protests. Gunn’s diction, as usual, was flawless, and his hunky baritone voice pours over the listener as we, too, dream of numerous brief (or not so brief) encounters with him.
Unfortunately, the minor characters took away from Futral’s and Gunn’s performance, abetting Prévin’s moments of awkwardness in their depictions of unwilling onlookers to this love affair. Arwady as Myrtle the train station bar owner sounded more like Mary the Mover than a critical and sympathetic commentator on the affair. Orth as Myrtle’s frequently rejected lover sang with nasal tones in an unpleasant cockney accent. Rebekah Camm’s Dolly was shrill and unintelligible. Lastly, Kim Josephson encompassed his character, Laura’s husband Fred, with his vocalizations: steady but unimpressive.
Brief Encounter deserves to be heard, but only in the context of Prévin’s development as a composer. Because the story and Caird’s libretto are so compelling, Brief Encounter might make for a better evening at the opera than listening to this CD on a Saturday morning.